A Right To Try — But for How Many? And For How Long?

President Trump has signed legislation restoring the right of some terminally ill patients to determine the course of their medical treatment. This “right to try” law builds on legislation enacted by dozens of states. The federal right-to-try law is an important victory for patients and individual liberty. But I worry these gains will not last. Here’s why.

Patients have a fundamental human right to choose their course of medical treatment. But how are patients to know which treatments work and which are just snake oil? The U.S. Congress attempts to solve this problem by empowering the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to block drugs from the market until the manufacturers demonstrate, to the FDA’s satisfaction, that the drug is safe and effective for its intended use. At a glance, this seems a reasonable approach to keeping patients safe. In practice, it has been a disaster. 

There are lots of problems with this model of certifying drug safety and efficacy. First, it routinely violates the fundamental human right of all patients to choose the course of their medical treatment. If the FDA blocks the drug you want from the market, or requires so much testing that you cannot afford it, or erects such high regulatory barriers that no one develops the drug you need, the government has violated your fundamental human right to choose your medical treatment.

Second, the FDA faces information asymmetries that make that first problem even worse, as well as result in unnecessary morbidity and mortality. Any government agency charged with keeping drugs off the market until it is convinced they are safe and effective will get a flood of information about its Type I errorsi.e., the harms it causes by approving drugs that end up harming patients. But it will receive far less information about its Type II errorsthe harms it causes by delaying the approval or blocking the development of helpful drugs. This is only natural: it is far easier to identify patients who were harmed by a drug they did use than patients who were not helped by a drug they didn’t use. The latter patients might not even know a beneficial drug exists because it hasn’t been approved yet. Indeed, the drug might not exist, because the FDA made its development uneconomical.

As a result, the FDA focuses almost exclusively on minimizing Type I errors. It does so by requiring manufacturers to conduct expensive and time-consuming clinical trials, so it can more often prevent harmful drugs from going to market. The agency requires more safety and efficacy testing before approving a drug than it would if it had complete information about both types of error. It requires all that additional testing even though doing so results in more harm from Type II errors than the additional testing prevents by eliminating Type I errors. The result is that the FDA’s approval process becomes costlier and longer, and violates the rights of more and more patients.

This next part is crucial. The public, media, and policymakers also receive far more information about the FDA’s Type I errors than its Type II errors, and therefore complain about the former far more than the latter. What this means is: the political forces that determine how the FDA operates reinforce the agency’s bias toward demanding more testing and more-often violating patients’ rights. We can think of the FDA’s standard operating procedure of minimizing Type I errors at the expense of more (and more costly) Type II errors as a kind of political equilibrium created by the information asymmetry the agency and those who control it face with respect to these two types of error. 

So while it is wonderful that President Trump has restored the right of some terminally ill patients to access drugs the FDA has not yet approved, I worry these gains will not last. This legislation does nothing to correct the information asymmetry faced by those who determine whether and when new therapies can reach patients. Inevitably, some drug accessed through this legislation will hurt some patients. When that happens, the same cast of charactersthe FDA, Congress, the media, and the publicwill all focus on those easily identifiable Type I errors. They will demand reforms that prevent further Type I errors. But because they cannot see the even greater Type II errors those reforms will cause, patients will end up both less safe and less free. The pendulum will swing back to the current political equilibrium. 

The only way to protect patient rights and to strike an appropriate balance between Type I and Type II errors is through fundamentaland I mean fundamentalreform of safety and efficacy certification for medical technologies. Read more here.