Later today, the Senate will begin voting on the 21st Century Cures Act, which passed the House overwhelmingly last week. I’ve blogged repeatedly about the Act (most recently here), and many academics and commentators are rightfully worried about the Act’s efforts to lower FDA approval standards in different ways. I write here to put some of these concerns more plainly (and more bluntly), by asking a simple question: what is the right number of unsafe or ineffective drugs for the FDA to approve? I would like to hear the Act’s supporters answer this question. Below, I offer some thoughts of my own on how we should think about and evaluate this question.
More generally, when we think about FDA approval of new pharmaceuticals, we have to consider how the FDA should balance Type I and Type II errors. You may think the FDA ought to focus on minimizing the number of unsafe or ineffective drugs that it approves (minimizing Type I errors). After all, we don’t want the FDA putting its stamp of approval on drugs that harm patients or that don’t work. Over time, this would lead to an erosion of public trust in the FDA as a tool for consumer protection. More generally, this is the entire reason we’ve given the FDA its powers to begin with. Scandals involving unsafe or ineffective drugs prompted Congress to give the FDA more, greater powers over the years, in large part to prevent such products coming to market in the first instance.
Instead, you may think that the FDA should focus on minimizing the number of safe, effective drugs it fails to approve (minimizing Type II errors). In other words, it is worse for the FDA to deny patients access to a drug that is safe and effective than it is for the FDA to approve a drug that later turns out to be unsafe or ineffective. On this view, the FDA should still perform some screening against drugs with significant safety signals or against drugs with no plausible mechanism of action, and perhaps should require post-market surveillance studies, but the FDA ought to be enabling sick patients to access drugs more quickly. This view of the FDA’s role places greater responsibility on insurers, physicians, and patients to gather, process, and act on information about a drug’s safety and efficacy.