Tuesday, October 30, 2007
The Wall Street Journal has an extended article, Medtronic Recall Exposes Gaps In Medical Safety, by Thomas M. Burton and Anna Wilde Mathews, which provides an interesting description of the build-up of scientific warning signs for Medtronic's Sprint Fidelis cardiac lead, as well as the FDA's regulatory role. Here's an excerpt from the lengthy article:
In late January, something unsettling happened at the Minneapolis Heart Institute. On two successive days, patients came to the clinic after their heart defibrillators had jolted them with huge, unnecessary and painful electric shocks. One 65-year-old woman said she'd been zapped 14 times in an hour.
Doctors checked the hospital's records and discovered four similar cases had occurred in recent months. Each stemmed from a broken wire -- called a lead -- that tells a defibrillator when to send an electric shock to a malfunctioning heart. All six cases involved the Sprint Fidelis 6949, manufactured by Medtronic Inc., a leading medical-device maker.
Within days, the Heart Institute concluded that the Sprint Fidelis wasn't safe enough, told the company of its concerns, and stopped using the product.
Across the country, physicians at leading hospitals from Chicago's Children's Memorial Hospital to Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital came across similar problems and some took similar steps.
But it wasn't until this month that Medtronic of Minneapolis reached the same conclusion. On Oct. 7, Medtronic President and Chief Executive Bill Hawkins convened a meeting of top executives who decided that the company should suspend sales of the Fidelis leads. In one of the biggest recalls of a medical device, it pulled all Sprint Fidelis models from the market, citing five deaths in the devices' three years on the market.
The events surrounding the Medtronic recall expose a hole in the U.S.'s medical safety system: Medical devices are regulated under different standards from those applied to prescription drugs. The Food and Drug Administration requires that almost all new medications be tested in human trials before they go on the market. But some devices, like the Sprint Fidelis leads, are subject to lighter guidelines because they are considered modifications of earlier products. The FDA, in most cases, also doesn't mandate major studies of medical devices after they've hit the market.
As a result, both the federal agency and the company were handicapped in evaluating whether a widespread public health threat was emerging.