By RITA F. REDBERG and SANKET S. DHRUVA JULY 17, 2015
THE Food and Drug Administration has been regulating the approval of medical devices since 1976, but its regulatory oversight has not kept pace with the increasing complexity of this technology. Many high-risk medical devices today are approved on the basis of just one clinical trial (as opposed to new medications, which usually require two trials). And only a small minority of clinical studies of medical devices are randomized, controlled and blinded — the gold standard for reliable evidence (and the benchmark to which studies of drugs are held).
As a result, there have been many warnings about, and recalls and withdrawals of, medical devices that were found to be dangerous only after they were on the market. (In 2009, for example, the Sprint Fidelis defibrillator, which by that time had been implanted in hundreds of thousands of heart patients, was recalled because it frequently malfunctioned, harming many patients and leading to numerous deaths.) And because the F.D.A.’s oversight of medical devices once they are on the market is also weak, it is very likely that many malfunctions and other problems remain undetected.
Incredibly, legislation that the House of Representatives passed last week would severely weaken, not strengthen, the F.D.A.’s already ineffective regulatory scheme for medical devices. The device industry may stand to benefit from this legislation, but the health of the public does not.
The legislation, disingenuously titled the 21st Century Cures Act, would make it possible for companies that produce high-risk medical devices to submit evidence of safety and efficacy based on sources other than clinical trials, including case histories (i.e., the experiences of individual patients). In other words, anecdotal evidence, rather than the scientific studies, could be used to approve devices.
This act would also create a new, faster approval process for “breakthrough technologies” that are believed — but not necessarily proved — to offer significant advantages over existing alternatives. This would allow a device to be approved based on even lower standards of evidence than are currently used, on the theory that the need outweighs the risk. The legislation defines “breakthrough” loosely, creating a perverse incentive for manufacturers to use this term both to take advantage of the faster approval process and as a marketing gimmick.
In general, the proposed law is likely to shift the burden of evidence to clinical studies that are conducted only after the devices have been put on the market. Unfortunately, such studies are often delayed months to years after a device is approved. Many are never completed (and even when they are, their findings are often not publicly available). Although the proposed law alludes to “timely postmarket data collection,” that vague directive needs to be clearly defined — and more important, enforced — by the F.D.A. In fact, according to a 2014 journal article co-written by one of us, the F.D.A. has never issued a warning letter or penalty for a postmarket study delay.
Even if a postmarket clinical study deems a medical device dangerous, it still can be difficult to remove it from the marketplace. In 2005, for example, an intracranial stent called the Wingspan was approved on an expedited basis to prevent recurrent strokes. When a high-quality clinical trial was finally completed, in 2011, it found that patients who had the device implanted were more likely to have another stroke and to die than those just receiving medical management. Despite this evidence, the F.D.A. did not withdraw the device (though it did narrow its recommended uses). The Wingspan continues to be marketed and implanted today, putting patients at unnecessary risk.
Once a medical device is developed and approved, its manufacturer often makes small changes intended as enhancements (such as using a different size wire or new material). Currently, the F.D.A. is the arbiter responsible for ensuring that these changes result in a safe and effective device. But alarmingly, the 21st Century Cures Act would establish a third-party program of nongovernment authorities to assess whether a company is permitted to make such changes. The act would enable the device manufacturer itself to select — and pay — the third party from an approved list. This flagrant conflict of interest would make it impossible for physicians or patients to have trust in the safety or effectiveness of updated medical devices.
The 21st Century Cures Act would subject millions of Americans to unsafe or untested medical devices. We urge the Senate, as it takes up the bill, to avoid these dangerous provisions. Unlike medical drugs, which can readily be discontinued if problems are found, many medical devices are permanently implanted and cannot easily be removed if found to be defective. Stricter evidence standards and increased federal funding of the F.D.A. are needed to ensure that innovative medical devices lead to better health.
Rita F. Redberg is a cardiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, Medical Center. Sanket S. Dhruva, a cardiologist, is a clinical scholar at Yale University.