Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Robert Califf, M.D., M.A.C.C., isn’t easy to rattle.
During a Q&A on Friday, April 29, at Health Journalism 2022 in Austin, he told journalists that after “surviving a harrowing confirmation process” he’s feeling confident about the FDA’s ability to tackle all of the challenges before it, including food safety, children’s COVID vaccines, teen vaping, among others.
Though the agency has been hit with criticism from lawmakers, industry and the public, he’s taking it in stride.
“I’m 70 years old. I’m relatively impervious to critique. What are they going to do to me now?” he said during the session moderated by AHCJ’s core topic leader on patient safety Kerry Dooley Young.
But the issue that keeps him up at night, he said, is the proliferation of false and misleading health information, particularly online — and the distrust in institutions, data and expertise that it has wrought.
“I believe that misinformation is now our leading cause of death,” he said, naming ongoing COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy, the number of people taking Ivermectin and the prevalence of vaping as examples of the problem. “Historically, the FDA has been relatively quiet and puts out definitive information through guidance or labels or regulatory actions … that would be transmitted to consumers and patients through trusted intermediaries. But the world has changed at this point.”
All this, he argued, had fueled the drop in life expectancy in the U.S. compared to other wealthy nations, and he urged reporters to avoid clickbait, lean into fact checking, make sure the headline matches the copy and take other steps to responsibly convey news about COVID-19 and other pressing health concerns.
“People are distracted and misled by the medical information Tower of Babel,” he said. “But journalists like yourselves play an important role here and your work has a tremendous impact on public trust.”