After we were all inundated with direct-to-consumer advertising from the pharma industry on Sunday evening, I thought I'd share some potentially good news from federal regulators (the same regulators that would do us all a favor by banning DTC advertising from pharma). The emphasis here is on the word "potentially."
Last week, three physician leaders at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published an article in the New England Journal of Medicine that suggests a new approach to how FDA should deal with opioids as a medication class. The article concisely lays out new steps, clear priorities, and a commitment to better handling issues around pain management. While the paper is characterized as part of a larger initiative on the part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), those who follow FDA activities closely know that this is also a response to significant criticism over the last several years regarding FDAs unpredictable and haphazard responses to new drug applications in the opioid class. FDA mandated necessary and positive label changes to all extended release / long acting opioids... and also approved Zohydro and generic Opana ER... Clearly, the agency has suffered from a lack of a clear and comprehensive strategy.
While it's been forever and a day, FDA finally appears to be crafting one. The key quote: "... the United States much deal aggressively with opioid misuse and addiction, and at the same time,... it must protect the well-being of people experiencing the devastating effects of acute or chronic pain. It is a difficult balancing act, but we believe that the continuing escalation of the negative consequences of opioid use compels us to comprehensively review our portfolio of activities, reassess our strategy, and take aggressive actions when there is good reason to believe that doing so will make a positive difference."
FDA will now reexamine the role of pharmaceuticals in pain management, encourage the development of non-opioid alternatives, focus on abuse-deterrent formulations of new drugs, support the development of evidence-based guidelines for opioid use, and ensure that the approach to pediatric pain management is the right one.
But to me, the most important commitment FDA appears to make in this announcement is a willingness to "balance individual needs for pain control with the risk of addiction, as well as the broader public health consequences of opioid abuse and misuse."
This the first time, to my knowledge, that FDA has acknowledged public health concerns as part of its mandate related to pain management medications. Should FDA develop a rational, repeatable, replicable approach to balancing the safety and efficacy to an individual patient with the safety and efficacy to the broader public, this will represent a major step forward in the fight against opioid misuse and abuse.
This is promising. But now the hard work begins. FDA actually has to implement this.
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