Product Liability

FDA approval of medical devices was rushed and incomplete

A group of FDA scientists recently sent a six-page letter to Barack Obama’s transition team venting consternation over their agency’s corruption and mismanagement. It’s not the first time FDA scientists have sought the help of Washington, pleading for a shakeup, but the number of complaints and the overall tone of the latest letter indicate agency insiders are eager to grab some of the new President’s much promised change.

And change is apparently what the FDA needs the most. On Thursday, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said that from 2003 to 2007, the FDA cleared 228 medical devices for the market without a complete evaluation of their safety and effectiveness. Some of the devices were intended for sensitive and risky uses, such as pacemakers and heart valves, and a few have since been recalled because of malfunction or other problems.

“It all adds up to less-than-rigorous rigorous device review, and it’s placing tens of thousands of Americans at risk,” said Peter Lurie, deputy director of Public Citizen’s health research group, in a report by the Associated Press.

The GAO report (link to PDF of report) did not evaluate the number of people, if any, who were harmed by the hastily approved devices. Instead it focused on the approval process for medical devices, calling into question why FDA scientists are routinely pressured to approve of medical machinery against their professional judgment.

A factor that may be contributing to the FDA’s problem is the quickening pace of technology development. Manufacturers of high-tech medical devices have made giant strides in the past decade, and so the number of devices trying to enter the market has grown. The number of upgraded products up for review has also increased. As technology began to outpace the FDA’s approval process, which was established as a three-tier system in 1976, the Federal government pressured the FDA to speed things up.

With drug companies and medical device manufacturers seeking refuge in legal preemption, the current FDA approval system can be a formula for disaster for the American public. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal (FDA) approval of medical devices could displace many laws on the state level. In other words, someone who has been harmed by an FDA-approved medical device may have little legal recourse in state courts.