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Our Guide to Pre-Approval Access to Drugs For Both Doctors & Patients

By ALISON-BATEMAN HOUSE

In April 2016, I published guidance, in the form of a mock case study, on how to access a drug before it has been approved by the FDA—what’s known as pre-approval (or expanded or compassionate) access. This is an updated version of that guidance, reflecting multiple important changes in the pre-approval landscape over the past year. In particular, the FDA rolled out a new, streamlined form for single-patient requests, and Congress passed the 21st Century Cures Act, which, among many other things, mandated that certain pharmaceutical companies provide public information about their pre-approval access policies.

Patients (and physicians) trying to access an unapproved drug outside of a clinical trial can feel as though they’re navigating uncharted waters. Many physicians don’t know that the FDA permits the use of unapproved drugs outside of clinical trials; those who do know often have no idea how to access such drugs for their patients. Those physicians who know about pre-approval access are largely specialists in certain areas—often, oncology or rare diseases—and they are generally self-taught: they didn’t learn about pre-approval access in medical school or in their residencies. Thus, while some physicians have become very accustomed to requesting pre-approval access to drugs, the majority lacks this knowledge. In this essay, I use a fictional case to trace the process for requesting access to an unapproved drug. I hope to explode several myths about the process, especially the beliefs that the FDA is the primary decision-maker in granting access to unapproved drugs and that physicians must spend 100 hours or more completing pre-approval access paperwork.

Imagine you are a physician, and you have a pregnant patient who has tested positive for the Zika virus. She is only mildly ill, but she’s terrified that the virus, which has been linked with microcephaly and other abnormalities, will harm her unborn child. She’s so concerned that she is contemplating an abortion, even though she and her husband have been trying to have a child and were overjoyed to learn she was pregnant.

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