Jonca Bull, M.D., is the first permanent director of FDA's Office of Minority Health. Photo by FDA

Jonca Bull, M.D., is assistant commissioner for minority health at the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Minority Health. Photo by FDA

The Food and Drug Administration isn’t just keeping food, drugs, cosmetics and medical devices safe — it’s also fighting health disparities in many different ways.

Jonca Bull, M.D., assistant commissioner for minority health at the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Minority Health, spoke to Public Health Newswire about three different agency initiatives to promote health equity, including a new campaign that “salutes those who represent Hip Hop, stay on their grind, and live tobacco-free.”

FDA has set a goal for the Fresh Empire campaign to reduce tobacco use among the “hip-hop peer crowd.” Why specifically did you choose to target this audience?

Fresh Empire is FDA’s first innovative campaign to prevent and reduce tobacco use among multicultural youth (12-17-year-olds) who identify with the hip hop peer crowd. The campaign uses interactive marketing tactics with a combination of ads, videos, posters and social media that will resonate with African-American, Hispanic and Asian American/Pacific Islander youth. Fresh Empire has also elicited influencers from the hip-hop community to deliver positive and inspirational messages which leverage their core values of wanting to be in control of their destiny, as well as being successful and attractive- and how living tobacco free can help achieve those goals.

This group was chosen because they are often hard to reach and are overly exposed to pro-tobacco images and messages. Data show that each day, nearly 3,300 youth under the age of 18 smoke their first cigarette and almost 700 become regular smokers. Youth in this group tend to live in urban areas where they experience a disproportionate amount of social, racial, economic and health struggles and may be particularly vulnerable and influenced by messages about tobacco use. It is our goal that by meeting teens where they are- we can inspire them to keep it fresh and live tobacco free. For more information, visit  www.fda.gov/tobaccocampaigns.

One way FDA has “broadened its vocabulary” is by releasing a plan that addresses the reach more than 60 million Americans who speak a language other than English at home. How does the agency foresee this impacting minority health?

Health literacy is a big deal, affecting millions! Not being able to understand health information can lead to poor health outcomes and health status. A key component to managing one’s health is the fundamental ability to understand health information in order to make decisions. Even the most educated person can have difficulty deciphering health information. However, we know that over 60 million Americans, about 20% of the U.S. population, speak a language other than English at home. This is a population that is need of targeted outreach.

Here at FDA, we aim to make sure people have accurate, science-based information they need to make decisions about the medicines and foods they use to keep themselves healthy. We want to create resources that will resonate with our [minority] audiences. In 2014, we created a Language Access Plan to improve our communications and outreach with consumers- particularly those with limited English proficiency. Our model consists of:

  • Translating materials into the top 5 most spoken languages in the US (Spanish, Tagalog, Madarin, Chinese, and Vietnamese);
  • Developing in-house strategies to improve translated products;
  • Using electronic platforms to relay information- social media (Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest), webinars, blogs, e-newsletters, etc;
  • Engaging stakeholders who can link us to the communities in need;
  • Managing an FDA-wide cross-cutting steering committee to collaborate and raise awareness around health literacy issues; and
  • Utilizing best practices around risk communication, health literacy, plain language, and cultural competency to develop resources (e.g. fact sheets).

By FDA taking a more active role in addressing our consumer’s health literacy needs, we will ultimately improve health outcomes, health status, decrease medication usage errors and improve people’s confidence in being able to make the right health decision for their health. We hope to serve as an example of an agency that is being proactive and innovative in reaching people at their place of need/where they are.

Last month you talked about ClinicalTrials.gov, a website that supports more than 200,000 clinical studies of human participants around the world. Why is FDA’S Office of Minority Health invested in these studies?

FDA is deeply invested in increasing diversity in clinical trials, a key priority area for our office. We know that minorities, women and adults over age 75 are underrepresented in clinical trials. This is an issue because if inclusion is low for certain groups, we will not have data to know how they respond to different medical products. And, historically, we know that sometimes certain groups of people may respond differently to medical products. This is why we have invested our resources to help educate patients about the importance of clinical trial participation.

In FDA’s response to a congressionally mandated Action Plan, FDA committed to do several things related to clinical trials- improve the quality of data submitted, increase participation in clinical trials, and make the data collected available to the public. We have taken the lead to help build FDA’s portfolio of resources available to educate consumers and health professionals. Current resources include a webinar, brochure, fact sheet, and video. We also facilitate stakeholder meetings to identify strategies to improve our outreach. We are hosting a stakeholder meeting in February 2016 to update stakeholders on our Action Plan progress.

FDA also implemented the Drug Trials Snapshot which makes clinical trial data-stratified by race, gender, and age- accessible to the public, in an easy to read format. This data shows any differences in how groups responded to the medication during the clinical trial. This can be very useful in informing the patient-provider dialogue when developing a treatment plan that is optimal for the patient.