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Internet Communications: FDA Needs to Divide the Issues to Conquer the Problem

Creating an Internet communications policy for regulated medical product companies is so daunting that FDA has largely ignored the responsibility. November’s FDA hearing on social media was an important step, but offered no sign that new policy will be announced anytime soon.

FDA needs a different approach. This is not a matter of a large, complicated problem with many facets. Rather, it is a number of smaller problems that can be addressed separately.

Throughout this decade, FDA has clung to the view that the same rules apply to all media: print, broadcast and web communications. The mantra, “regardless of medium,” has given them a moderately safe harbor in the midst of a storm of difficult issues.

There are a number of serious problems with imposing existing FDA regulatory policies onto web-based communications between companies and patients, physicians, and consumers. Above all else, it doesn’t serve the interests of patients.

Most Americans want easy access to accurate, understandable health information that will answer their questions. FTC, FDA, patients and consumers all want the same thing: information that is “truthful and not misleading.” It shouldn’t matter if a drug or device company is the source of the information, as long as this is disclosed. Particularly troubling is that medical products company cannot go onto the web to post comments that counter or correct misinformation.

FDA has legitimate concerns about companies’ public communications about their products via advertising, marketing, news releases, unsolicited reprints, websites, etc. For example, the agency wants all such external communications to contain a fair balance of benefit/risk information and reflect the approved label indications and its supporting science. FDA also wants to prevent companies from discussing off-label uses of medical products, even in accurate and neutral terms.

The agency has already made adjustments in its policies on presenting a fair balance of benefits and risks. Print ads can have the detailed information on another page; broadcast ads can refer to a magazine ad that contains product information. Given past compromises, FDA should be able to propose a solution for fair balance in web communications without waiting for comprehensive policies.

FDA already pre-reviews many ads to ensure claims about products are accurate, consistent with product labeling and supported by scientific and medical data. This could expand to include web copy of various sorts. Comprehensive policy is not required to get started on a limited, trial basis.

The web increases access to off-label product information by allowing greater access to news, medical journals and patient sites. This is on FDA’s mind when thinking about developing Internet guidelines. The agency fears that widespread availability of off-label information will lessen a company’s incentives to file for FDA approval for additional indications. Getting more indications on-label is a serious and important public policy issue that FDA and industry should be discussing. It is only incidentally about web communications.

A broad dissection of the virtues and limitations of the web might lead to comprehensive FDA guidelines on product communications on the Internet. But this may be years in the making and obsolete when issued.

Instead, discussion should focus on each of FDA’s concerns, of which I have mentioned three. Most can be dealt with now. Some will turn out not to be Internet policy concerns at all. There is no reason to wait for some overarching Internet policy.


As additional background, here is FDA Matter‘s interpretation of the dynamic nature of web communications:

Web 1.0 (one-way dissemination of information) is a more flexible and customizable way of delivering the same messages as print and broadcast. We are several years into the next phase, Web 2.0 (interaction and dialogue). Just emerging is Web 3.0 (intelligent software gathers and interprets information and dialogue). Print and broadcast can only duplicate Web 2.0 and 3.0 functions by transferring their content onto the web, at which point they face the same lack of clarity from FDA.

Here is a related FDA Matters column:

Patients Come First
November 11th, 2009

It is a distracting time for the biopharmaceutical and medical device industries, with health reform, mega-mergers, and a constant stream of new investigations by US Attorneys and others. All this frenzy makes it a good time to stop, draw a breath and remember why seriously-ill patients care about the success of biopharmaceutical and medical device companies. Read the rest of this entry ยป

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