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Psychologists to Serve on New FDA Risk Communication Advisory Committee

We will include on the Committee patients and consumers as well as experts in risk and crisis communication and social and cognitive sciences.

By Geoff Mumford

Earlier this month, APA learned that the Food and Drug Administration chose, and received acceptances from, the 15 initial voting members of FDA’s Risk Communication Advisory Committee. One of APA’s nominees, Baruch Fischhoff, Howard Heinz University Professor in the Department of Social and Decision Sciences and Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, was appointed Chair.

APA Science Government Relations staff reached out to FDA soon after the January 30 release of its response to an Institute of Medicine Report entitled “The Future of Drug Safety: Promoting and Protecting the Health of the Public.” The FDA response contained a passage describing FDA’s renewed commitment to risk communication that piqued APA’s interest:

“We are establishing a new advisory committee to obtain input to improve the Agency’s communication policies and practices and to advise FDA on implementing communication strategies consistent with the best available and evolving evidence. We will include on the Committee patients and consumers as well as experts in risk and crisis communication and social and cognitive sciences. The IOM report recommends legislation to establish a new Advisory Committee on communication with patients, but we intend to implement the IOM’s recommendation more expeditiously through administrative procedures.”

The official charter and call for nominations was released June 4, and according to FDA staff, it received more than 225 nominations of people with “an extremely impressive set of qualifications. Those qualifications,” they said, “together with requirements for balance of various characteristics and the recommendations of the FDA colleagues who assisted us in the selection process, resulted in our needing to make some very hard choices.” One other psychologist, APA member Ellen Peters, a Senior Research Scientist at the nonprofit Decision Research, was also selected to serve on the committee.

Asked to reflect on their appointments, Fischhoff said “I am honored to be the first chair of the new FDA Risk Communication Advisory Committee. I think that we have a unique opportunity to help people to make the best choices for themselves among the products that FDA regulates. Over time, having a clearer picture of consumers’ and patients’ needs and wants should help manufacturers to develop products with more attractive tradeoffs between risks and benefits.”

Further, he said of his colleagues, “I am grateful that FDA has chosen a committee whose members have the four skill sets needed for effective communication: subject matter experts (who know the science of the products), decision analysts (who can identify the most critical facts regarding products’ risks and benefits), psychologists (who can understand people’s desires and beliefs, design communications, and evaluate their impact), and designers (who can create and maintain engaging communication channels). I am looking forward to our getting to work, early next year.”

Peters likewise recognized the potential for our discipline: “I’m looking forward to the opportunity to bring psychological science to bear on the important communication issues faced by the FDA.” As a psychologist studying how people process information, Peters said, “understanding how this processing influences judgments and decisions, I’ve been very interested in how the ability to comprehend numbers, or numeracy, influences decision processes. For example, both the dosage and timing of medication are crucial variables in effective pharmacotherapy for many medical conditions, and as such, understanding numeracy is a basic cognitive ability critical to achieving many positive health outcomes.