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Drug Approval in a Learning Health System

Drug Approval in a Learning Health System

By W. Nicholas Price II. Full Text Here.

The current system of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval seems to make few happy. Some argue that FDA approves drugs too slowly; others, too quickly. Many agree that FDA—and the health system generally—should gather information after drugs are approved to learn how well they work and how safe they are. This is hard to do. FDA has its own drug-safety surveillance systems, but those systems face substantial limitations in practical use. Drug companies can also conduct their own studies, but have little incentive to do so, and often fail to fulfill study commitments made to FDA. Proposals to improve this dynamic often suggest gathering more information after approval and incorporating that information into FDA’s decision‑making process, making the information/access tradeoff more nuanced. The drug approval regime has already begun to move in this direction.

This Article describes parallels between this move and the move to a learning health system more broadly. A learning health system blurs the line between health care and health research. It creates opportunities for broad post-approval studies, both observational and interventional, with lower costs and more systematic applicability than traditional study mechanisms. FDA itself has recognized some of these possibilities, especially in its actions to consider uses of real-world evidence as mandated by the 21st Century Cures Act.

Unfortunately, while learning health systems blur the line between care and research, some parts of the law do not—at least not yet. In particular, the federal Common Rule requires relatively elaborate informed consent procedures for research, and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act’s Privacy Rule tightly limits the use of identifiable patient information in research. These bright lines fail to reflect the evolving nature of the health-care system, and both hamper and bias the generation of systematic, generalizable knowledge to improve the use of drugs and other medical interventions in patient care.