The FDA responds to the criticism by pointing out that while every medical device carries a potential risk, the vast majority of devices perform well and improve patient health. An FDA spokeswoman emphasized that the agency must evaluate thousands of medical devices each year, and is constantly looking for ways to better and more quickly identify problems.
While the FDA makes the adverse event reports publically available in a searchable database, it doesn’t have a standardized system for reviewing reports once they are sent in, said Vodra, the attorney. A disclaimer on the site specifically states that the data is “not intended to be used either to evaluate rates of adverse events or to compare adverse event occurrence rates across devices.”
“What you would normally consider the simplest kind of data analysis is not done,” said Zuckerman. Often, doctors catch a malfunctioning device before the FDA ever notices.
In one case, a group of Pennsylvania doctors noticed that several patients were showing severe complications a few years after getting an IVC filter – a device designed to capture blood clots. Bits of the filter were breaking off, causing chest pain and a dangerous build-up of fluid and pressure around the heart. In 2010 the doctors conducted their own study and found that the filter broke in a quarter of all patients who used it.
On the day that study was published, the FDA issued a warning saying it had received over 900 reports of problems with IVC filters since 2006, and that the device was meant to be removed after a few months, not left in permanently.
There have been numerous attempts at reform. Five years ago Congress ordered the FDA to set up a post-market surveillance system to track the safety of all medical projects, but a system hasn’t yet been set up for medical devices.
A year later the FDA announced the Sentinel Initiative, which would combine existing data from electronic health records and medical claims to track drugs, vaccines, and devices. Some groups of hospitals or other organizations have voluntarily set up registries to collect information about the make and model of devices.
While the FDA has made significant progress on tracking drugs, it’s not yet in a position to do the same thing for devices, according to Harvard’s Platt, who is the principal investigator of Mini-Sentinel, the FDA’s pilot program for the national system. The data isn’t there.
The FDA has long acknowledged the need for a unique device identifier system, and got permission from Congress to set one up five years ago. No such system of ID-tags exists yet, but after several recent high profile medical device failures, the issue getting some attention from Congress. A proposed Senate bill, which cleared the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee last week, sets a timeframe for implementing a unique identification system, among other reforms.
“If UDI’s were used in a consistent way, we could use the same kinds of techniques we’ve developed for drugs for devices,” said Platt. “It would be a huge breakthrough.”
This post was originally published by ProPublica.
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