Increased Scrutiny for the 510(k) Process

This post was written by Michelle Lyu Cheng.

On November 14, 2011, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee held a hearing called "Medical Devices: Protecting Patients and Promoting Innovation." The hearing focused on the continued viability of a medical device clearance process that clears for market medical devices that are "substantially equivalent" devices to previously cleared devices (also known as the "510(k) process," in reference to the statutory provision governing this process). Class III medical devices not cleared through this process must undergo the more rigorous and time-consuming Premarket Approval process. Among the issues considered were whether the 510(k) process sufficiently evaluated the safety of devices when clinical data is not necessarily always considered or part of the submission; whether high-risk medical devices should always be considered for the 510(k) process; the user fees for medical device applications; strengthening post-approval monitoring requirements; and the resources and needs for the FDA and the Center of Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH) in reviewing, clearing and approving medical devices. 

Testifying witnesses before the panel were as follows: Jeffrey Shuren, Director of the CDRH of the Food and Drug Administration; Ralph Hall, Professor of Practice, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis; David R. Challoner, M.D., Vice President (emeritus) of Health Affairs, University of Florida, and Chair, IOM Committee on the Public Health Effectiveness of the FDA 510(k) Clearance Process, Gainesville, Fla.; and Gregory Curfman, M.D., Executive Editor, New England Journal of Medicine, Boston. 

The first discussion panel centered on Dr. Shuren and his work with CDRH. In late 2009, the CDRH initiated a review of the 510(k) process, among others, and in 2010, released two reports concluding that the FDA had not managed its premarket programs sufficiently, with the most dire problem being unpredictability in the 510(k) and other premarket processes. This led to other increases in costs to the industry and delays in bringing innovation to the market. The root causes were determined to be the lack of personnel resources in CDRH, as compared with the center for drugs and biologics, insufficient reviewer training, insufficient managers and frontline reviewers, rapidly growing workload caused by increased complexity of devices and number of admissions, insufficient guidance for FDA, and poorly drafted submissions by the industry. In 2011, Dr. Shuren testified that concrete steps for improving the transparency, predictability and consistency of the premarket programs were outlined and evaluated. The Committee members generally focused on the sufficiency of CDRH/FDA's resources and an increase in review times for both the 510(k) and the Premarket Approval processes. One suggestion from Sen. Harkin (D-Iowa) was that the user fees for these submissions should be increased, although later it was conceded that the optimal solution would be if the FDA was independently funded. 

The second discussion panel with Mr. Hall and Drs. Challoner and Curfman focused on the 510(k) process and the National Academies of Science, Institute of Medicine (IoM) report that heavily criticized the 510(k) process. Mr. Hall started first, outlining that the drug and medical device sectors are very different, including because medical device development is an iterative process that builds upon previously created devices, and clinical testing is not necessarily an optimal or feasible method of measuring safety and effectiveness for medical devices compared with drugs. In response to Sen. Harkin's question about 510(k) devices bearing little resemblance to each of its predicate devices that may compromise patient safety, Mr. Hall noted the FDA has resources and regulatory powers at its disposal to satisfy itself for any issues relating to safety and effectiveness. Mr. Hall also stated in response to Sen. Blumenthal's (D-Conn.) question that post-market surveillance should be improved but that currently, FDA does have controls and regulatory systems in place for monitoring. Mr. Hall also emphasized that the 510(k) process does control for safety and effectiveness.

The discussion with Dr. Challoner primarily focused on IoN's report, as he chaired the committee that drafted it. The IoN report concluded that the 510(k) process generally does not evaluate safety and effectiveness, but only evaluates whether it is substantively equivalent to prior devices previously cleared. He stated that the IoN committee concluded that overhauling the 510(k) process was an optimal scenario, but per Sen. Mikulski's (D-Md.) question, Dr. Challoner stated that he did not expect the 510(k) process be eliminated overnight. He considered the IoN report to be a conversation starter. Dr. Challoner also testified that since the 510(k) process will not be immediately overhauled, it may be necessary to evaluate and strengthen the post-market processes and improve quality control. Dr. Curfman provided testimony similar to Dr. Challoner, namely that post-market surveillance controls would be helpful in monitoring the safety and effectiveness of devices. One potential way of doing so would be to institute a uniform device identification system so that a device can be tracked over its lifetime.

Sen. Harkin, the Committee Chair, concluded that this hearing was helpful in illustrating the need to take a more intense look at the approval process and post-surveillance controls, especially for certain higher-risk devices. While Sen. Harkin conceded that user fees may not be the optimal solution to compensate for the FDA's lack of resources, he did not consider that any changes to this would be feasible in light of the current climate. Based on some of the discussion points raised during this hearing, the 510(k) process and the post-market surveillance requirements may see increased scrutiny.

A link to the videotaped hearing is here.