FDA's Fast-Track Medical Device Approval Process Under Fire

VIDEO: Replacement body parts that were fast-tracked to market are being recalled.
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WASHINGTON — The FDA is falling short in how it handles recalls of risky medical devices, a new report from the Government Accountability Office concluded, adding to the ever-mounting criticisms of the agency's fast-track, 510(k) approval process.

The FDA doesn't keep track of the reasons devices such as hip implants are recalled, and it doesn't always follow up to make sure the recall was complete, a GAO investigator told the Senate Special Committee on Aging, which held a hearing Wednesday on FDA's 510(k) process.

"Concerns persist about the effectiveness of the 510(k) process in general, including its ability to provide adequate assurance that devices are safe and effective," Marcia Crosse, director of the GAO's healthcare team, told the committee. "Gaps in FDA's postmarket surveillance show that unsafe and ineffective devices may continue to be used, despite being recalled."

Read this story on www.medpagetoday.com.

The traditional route of device approval — the premarket approval (PMA) process— requires companies to provide clinical data to support their contention that their medical device is safe and effective. The less-stringent 510(k) process does not require clinical trial data; rather, device companies must prove their device is substantially similar to another device already on the market.

The FDA divides medical devices into three categories of risk: class I devices -- such as reading glasses and tongue depressors -- are very unlikely to harm anyone; class II devices are medium-risk, including bone drills and mercury thermometers; and class III includes high-risk devices like pacemakers and heart valves.

Although a federal law requires that all class III devices must eventually go through the pre-market approval process, that is not happening at the FDA.

From 2003-2007, the FDA approved 228 class III devices through the 510(k) process, the GAO report found. The report builds off an earlier report in which the GAO recommended that the 510(k) process not be available for class III devices.

Such devices, the GAO said, should either be reclassified into a less-risky category or else their manufacturers should have to go through the PMA process.

Speed Versus Safety?

The FDA has begun to take steps to address GAO's concerns, but "progress has been limited," the GAO said. As of this month, there are 26 types of class III devices that can currently enter the market through the 510(k) process, and the FDA has approved 67 devices that fall into those categories since 2009.

Until the FDA issues final decisions on those 26 types of devices, the agency's work is incomplete, Crosse said. That list of 26 types of devices -- all of which came onto the market decades ago -- includes automated external defibrillators and electroconvulsive therapy devices.

Decisions on what should happen to those device types will be made by the end of 2012, said William Maisel, chief scientist at the FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health. Maisel testified before the committee and told them his department has devoted a considerable amount of manpower and money to considering how the agency approves medical devices.

As evidenced at Wednesday's hearing, there's little agreement on what sort of additional danger, if any, is posed by fast-tracking devices.

According to figures from the Institute of Medicine (IOM), 1.5 percent of all devices approved through the 510(k) process are recalled.

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