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June 3, 2013

Stepping Aside But Not Out: Well-Known Consumer Health Advocate Dr. Sidney Wolfe Hands Over Reins to Deputy

Wolfe to Stay on as Founder, Senior Adviser; Dr. Michael Carome to Run Public Citizen’s Health Research Group

WASHINGTON, D.C. – After leading Public Citizen’s Health Research Group for more than 40 years through everything from pitched battles against the pharmaceutical industry to groundbreaking research on dangerous doctors, Dr. Sidney Wolfe, founder and longtime director of the program, is handing over leadership of it to his deputy today.

Although Wolfe is stepping aside, he’s not stepping out – he will continue to work at Public Citizen on the issues he cares so deeply about, which include drug and device safety, patient access to care, medical board oversight of doctors and much more. Wolfe’s new title: founder and senior adviser.

“Sid Wolfe has never backed down in the face of enormous industry and government pressure, and the result is that our country is safer and healthier,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. “The good news about the leadership change at the Health Research Group is, first, that Sid has located such an excellent successor, and, second, that Sid himself will continue working with Public Citizen.”

It’s been Wolfe’s longtime plan to groom a successor who could lead the group. He knew that what he sought wouldn’t be easy to find: a medical expert committed to working in the public interest who is a sharp analyst, a solid researcher and a creative thinker. Wolfe found that in Dr. Michael Carome, the program’s deputy director since 2010.

“Mike has shown extraordinarily well that he has all the traits necessary to run the program,” Wolfe said. “I am as – or more – enthused now as I was at the beginning. We’ve accomplished a lot.”

Wolfe came to Public Citizen from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where he had conducted medical research on blood. In early 1971, a doctor called Wolfe to complain about the government’s failure to ban contaminated intravenous fluids. Hundreds of patients who had received fluids from Abbott Laboratories had developed severe bacterial infections, and dozens had died.

Instead of ordering a product recall, the government merely warned doctors to watch for infections and stop using the fluids if they spotted any. Wolfe called his then-acquaintance Ralph Nader, who suggested they write to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) demanding a ban and release the letter to the press.

Within a few days of the letter hitting the news, Abbott recalled the contaminated fluids. “I was very surprised that we’d won,” Wolfe said. “It was very satisfying to see that if you did your homework and had the facts on your side, you could succeed.”

Enamored of the work, Wolfe teamed up with Nader, and in the fall of 1971, launched Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, the first program division of Public Citizen, which Nader had formed in March of that year. Wolfe was named director of the group.

Wolfe hired doctors and other medical experts, expanding the scope of work to include harmful drugs and medical devices, dangerous doctors, access to health care, occupational health and the ethics of clinical trials. Under Wolfe’s guidance, the program not only has conducted new research but also has gathered and analyzed existing scientific data with an eye toward exposing health hazards, giving people the tools to protect themselves from a rapacious drug industry and challenging the anti-consumer aspects of the health care system.

Under Wolfe’s guidance, Public Citizen has helped to force 25 dangerous medications off the market and has pushed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to set more than a dozen worker-protective health standards. It got Red Dye No. 2 banned and warning labels about Reye’s syndrome on the side of aspirin bottles. It got silicone breast implants restricted.

Among Wolfe’s landmark projects: “Questionable Doctors,” a series of books that listed every doctor in the U.S. who had been disciplined over 10 years, and “Worst Pills, Best Pills,” a book that provided people with information about the side effects of medications and warned of drug interactions. The book sold 2.5 million copies since the first edition in 1988. Worst Pills has been supplemented by a website, WorstPills.org, which is updated regularly. It is accompanied by Worst Pills, Best Pills News, a monthly newsletter with a circulation of about 150,000.

Taking over the day-to-day running of the program is Carome, who earned his medical degree from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland – by coincidence, the same school from which Wolfe earned his medical degree.

Carome was a staff nephrologist at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, from 1992 to 2010. While there, Carome began working for the Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, eventually becoming director of the Division of Compliance Oversight, then OHRP’s associate director for regulatory affairs.

“I love the work. We make a difference,” Carome said. “I look forward to continuing the great public health advocacy work that Public Citizen has done for 42 years.”

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