Third-Party Reviews of Devices Come Under Scrutiny at the FDA
March 15, 2010
By ALICIA MUNDY and JARED A. FAVOLE
WASHINGTON—When medical-equipment makers like Philips Electronics NV, Siemens AG and General Electric Co. need approval for some new devices, they don't always have to start at the Food and Drug Administration. They can pay companies to do the reviews, which are then routinely approved by FDA officials most of the time.
Now this third-party outsourcing program has come under fire at the FDA, and the agency is weighing whether to end it. Agency officials question the quality of the reviews and whether they have served the program's original purpose: saving U.S. taxpayers money.
The "real value to industry may be that this is perceived as a way to 'sneak things,'" said an FDA official at a December meeting on device approvals, according to minutes reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Some third-party reviewers advertise speed and a friendlier process.
At a time when the FDA is moving against third party device reviews, HHS and its Office of the National Coordinator for health IT (ONC) are soliciting to create third party EHR "certification" bodies for healthcare information technology (HIT) medical devices such as electronic medical records systems, decision support tools, clinician order entry and alerting, etc. (see RIN 0991-AB59, "Proposed Establishment of Certification Programs for Health Information Technology", PDF available at this link.)
This comes at the same time as FDA admitting this technology harms and kills patients, but the extent is unknown (existing FDA data is likely the "tip of the iceberg" reports Jeffrey Shuren MD JD at the HIT Policy Committee, Adoption/Certification Workgroup, special meeting on health IT safety on February 25, 2010).
"FDA on Health IT Adverse Consequences: 44 Reported Injuries And 6 Deaths, Probably Just 'Tip of Iceberg'" at http://hcrenewal.blogspot.com/2010/02/fda-on-health-it-adverse-consequences.html
"On ONC's "Proposed Establishment of Certification Programs for Health Information Technology" at http://hcrenewal.blogspot.com/2010/03/on-oncs-proposed-establishment-of.html
More from the WSJ article:
... The agency's concerns about the third-party reviews come as the FDA is re-evaluating its entire device-approval process. In addition, the agency has recently announced tighter regulation of some machines that deliver radiation in the wake of reports of more than 300 cases of overdoses from CT scanners at four hospitals.
Changes under consideration at the FDA include terminating the third-party program, limiting the kinds of devices that it covers, or giving the outside reviewers more data on devices to improve the quality of their work, according to the minutes and interviews with agency officials. Jeffrey Shuren, the device division director, said the FDA will release proposed changes later this year and cautioned that no decisions have been made.
To qualify for an outsourced review, a new device must be similar to a device already on the market, and it must carry low or moderate risk to the patient.
The December 2009 minutes say "third parties often don't have appropriate expertise." The minutes cite "poor quality of review documents— they often just repeat what is in the submission, and don't provide any analysis of the data."
(The point on lack of expertise is a point I raise in my aforementioned commentary on ONC's "Proposed Establishment of Certification Programs for HIT." I wrote: HHS should not be creating new, potentially (likely?) amateur organizations and bureaucracies overseeing these new virtual medical devices that will have variable (or no) experience in software validation, certification, regulation, postmarketing safety surveillance, etc. Rather, HHS should be leveraging existing governmental expertise in certifying, validating and regulating mission critical IT.)
The industry as always is looking out for - itself, patients coming in second:
Terry Sweeney, vice president of clinical affairs at Philips Healthcare, said the third-partyprogram benefits industry and helps relieve the FDA of a burden. "Every week's delay [i.e., in rigorously assuring medical device safety - ed.] can cost the company a large sum of money," he said.
It's not like the time differential is enormous:
It takes an average of about 72 days for a company to get final clearance for a device when it goes the third-party route, according to the FDA. That includes the time for the agency to sign off on the outside reviewer's conclusion and compares with an average 109 days for similar applications that go directly to the FDA.
So, the vendors seem to be saying, let's compromise the device safety evaluation process via third party reviewers so we can get to market a month sooner.
The FDA is having serious second thoughts about this state of affairs.
Worse, on health IT devices, the HHS itself via ONC is soliciting for the creation of third party reviewers for HIT, while the FDA itself seems marginalized or even unwilling to shoulder the burden of patient protection from faulty HIT.
Odd. Why do computerized HIT medical devices such as EMR's get special government accommodation?