FDA's Web overhaul won't inform public, critics say

Contrary to the expectations of the Food and Drug Administration, a planned overhaul of the FDA's Web site will not generate a better informed public, some health experts say.

On Friday, FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach sent a memorandum to FDA staff, stating, "A modern and effective FDA Web site is critically important for the agency to serve the public. Improving our Web site will help us to further cultivate trust, transparency, and communication among all of our stakeholders."

The transformation, which will occur over coming months, is designed to streamline Web operations, expand FDA's "reach and effectiveness in our communications by improving the user's experience," and "reflect both user needs and FDA priorities." The thinking is that retooling FDA's Web presence will help the agency communicate more competently with the public and internal staff.

John Pippin, a senior medical and research adviser at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, disagrees with the public outreach approach. "I don't think this will help much to make the public more knowledgeable about the FDA's processes, the risks and benefits of drugs, and the post-marketing safety issues at the heart of recent reform efforts," he said.

Pippin added that "relatively few normal people" will turn to the FDA site for advice and safety information because doing so will be intimidating or too bothersome. He pointed out that consulting the FDA site will be impossible for those without computers or computer skills -- "perhaps the very people most at risk for bad outcomes."

The facelift might solve the FDA's internal communication problems, but it is a "quick fix" that would not offer much comfort to the public.

"If the FDA truly wants to reach Americans," the content "has to be made available where they get their information," Pippin said. "[F]or most Americans, I think it is still television, newspapers, magazines, radio and their doctors' offices."

Sidney Wolfe, director of the Health Research Group at Public Citizen, said the upgrade should not be painted as a better public service. "Having a nice Web site is not a substitute for having an adequate regulatory agency," he said Monday. "They've done a miserable job regulating drugs, devices and other things under their jurisdiction."

To the FDA's credit, he said, the agency has a massive amount of information online, and to the extent the agency "can get it out there," that is helpful. But "public relations and communications" are "not a substitute for good regulation."

In Friday's notice, Eschenbach stated that the first piece of the new, improved Web environment will be the launch of "a user-friendly" Web page: "Consumer Health Information for You and Your Family." The guide will feature timely consumer stories on pressing FDA topics, offer links to the agency's most requested information and incorporate interactive content, he said.

The agency will discontinue the printing of FDA Consumer magazine, shifting resources to "more effective modern communication vehicles, such as a consumer health information e-newsletter."

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