A Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy (REMS) is a drug safety program the FDA can require for certain medications with serious safety concerns to help ensure the benefits of the medication outweigh its risks (Box1). The FDA may require medication guides, patient package inserts, communication plans for health care professionals, and/or certain packaging and safe disposal technologies for medications that pose a serious risk of abuse or overdose. The FDA may also require elements to assure safe use and/or an implementation system be included in the REMS. Pharmaceutical manufacturers then develop a proposed REMS for FDA review.2 If the FDA approves the proposed REMS, the manufacturer is responsible for implementing the REMS requirements.
There are many myths and misconceptions surrounding psychiatry, the branch of medicine that deals with the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental illness. Some of the most common myths include:
The FDA provides this description of a Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy (REMS):
“A [REMS] is a drug safety program that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can require for certain medications with serious safety concerns to help ensure the benefits of the medication outweigh its risks. REMS are designed to reinforce medication use behaviors and actions that support the safe use of that medication. While all medications have labeling that informs health care stakeholders about medication risks, only a few medications require a REMS. REMS are not designed to mitigate all the adverse events of a medication, these are communicated to health care providers in the medication’s prescribing information. Rather, REMS focus on preventing, monitoring and/or managing a specific serious risk by informing, educating and/or reinforcing actions to reduce the frequency and/or severity of the event.”1
The REMS program for clozapine3 has been the subject of much discussion in the psychiatric community. The adverse impact of the 2015 update to the clozapine REMS program was emphasized at meetings of both the American Psychiatric Association and the College of Psychiatric and Neurologic Pharmacists. A white paper published by the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors shortly after the 2015 update concluded, “clozapine is underused due to a variety of barriers related to the drug and its properties, the health care system, regulatory requirements, and reimbursement issues.”4 After an update to the clozapine REMS program in 2021, the FDA temporarily suspended enforcement of certain requirements due to concerns from health care professionals about patient access to the medication because of problems with implementing the clozapine REMS program.5,6 In November 2022, the FDA issued a second announcement of enforcement discretion related to additional requirements of the REMS program.5 The FDA had previously announced a decision to not take action regarding adherence to REMS requirements for certain laboratory tests in March 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic.7
REMS programs for other psychiatric medications may also present challenges. The REMS programs for esketamine8 and olanzapine for extended-release (ER) injectable suspension9 include certain risks that require postadministration monitoring. Some facilities have had to dedicate additional space and clinician time to ensure REMS requirements are met.
To further understand health care professionals’ perspectives regarding the value and burden of these REMS programs, a collaborative effort of the University of Maryland (College Park and Baltimore campuses) Center of Excellence in Regulatory Science and Innovation with the FDA was undertaken. The REMS for clozapine, olanzapine for ER injectable suspension, and esketamine were examined to develop recommendations for improving patient access while ensuring safe medication use and limiting the impact on health care professionals.
Assessing the REMS programs
Focus groups were held with health care professionals nominated by professional organizations to gather their perspectives on the REMS requirements. There was 1 focus group for each of the 3 medications. A facilitator’s guide was developed that contained the details of how to conduct the focus group along with the medication-specific questions. The questions were based on the REMS requirements as of May 2021 and assessed the impact of the REMS on patient safety, patient access, and health care professional workload; effects from the COVID-19 pandemic; and suggestions to improve the REMS programs. The University of Maryland Institutional Review Board reviewed the materials and processes and made the determination of exempt.
Health care professionals were eligible to participate in a focus group if they had ≥1 year of experience working with patients who use the specific medication and ≥6 months of experience within the past year working with the REMS program for that medication. Participants were excluded if they were employed by a pharmaceutical manufacturer or the FDA. The focus groups were conducted virtually using an online conferencing service during summer 2021 and were scheduled for 90 minutes. Prior to the focus group, participants received information from the “Goals” and “Summary” tabs of the FDA REMS website10 for the specific medication along with patient/caregiver guides, which were available for clozapine and olanzapine for ER injectable suspension. For each focus group, there was a target sample size of 6 to 9 participants. However, there were only 4 participants in the olanzapine for ER injectable suspension focus group, which we believed was due to lower national utilization of this medication. Individuals were only able to participate in 1 focus group, so the unique participant count for all 3 focus groups totaled 17 (Table 1).
Themes extracted from qualitative analysis of the focus group responses were the value of the REMS programs; registration/enrollment processes and REMS websites; monitoring requirements; care transitions; and COVID considerations (Table 2). While the REMS programs were perceived to increase practitioner and patient awareness of potential harms, discussions centered on the relative cost-to-benefit of the required reporting and other REMS requirements. There were challenges with the registration/enrollment processes and REMS websites that also affected patient care during transitions to different health care settings or clinicians. Patient access was affected by disparities in care related to monitoring requirements and clinician availability.
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