NCHR Public Comment to FDA on breast implant safety

National Center for Health Research, April 26, 2019


National Center for Health Research Public Comment on General and Plastic Surgery
Devices Panel of the Medical Devices Advisory Committee; Notice of Meeting [FDA-2019-N-0426].

Thank you for the opportunity to provide comments on FDA’s General and Plastic Surgery
Devices Panel of the Medical Devices Advisory Committee meeting on breast implants. The
National Center for Health Research is a nonprofit research center staffed by scientists, medical professionals, and health experts focused on research, programs, services, and policies that affect public health. Our Center analyzes scientific and medical data and provides objective health information to patients, providers, and policymakers. We do not accept funding from companies that make medical products, so we have no conflicts of interest.

Our Program to Help Women Seeking Insurance Coverage for Implant Removal

Since its founding in 1999, our Center has heard from thousands of women who told us that their breast implants have caused serious health problems. In 2015, we began to offer a program that helps women navigate their health insurance policies so that they can get coverage when the removal of breast implants is medically necessary. In the past 3 years, more than 6,000 women have contacted us, and the number continues to grow dramatically. Some weeks we are contacted by more than 200 new women seeking our help to get their breast implants removed because of serious medical problems. Their reasons for needing their implants removed include leaking and ruptured breast implants, chronic pain from capsular contracture or from implants that are too large, autoimmune or connective tissue symptoms or diseases (referred to as “breast implant illness”), and ALCL. Some women contact us after recently developing symptoms from their breast implants, while others have been living with chronic health issues for years but either did not know they might be related to their breast implants or did not have the financial resources to have their implants removed. Prior to passage of the Affordable Care Act, breast implants were considered a “pre-existing condition” and explant surgery was almost never covered by health insurance.

Most women tell us that had they known that breast implants might cause these serious health problems, they never would have gotten them. We hear every day how women trusted their doctors when they were told that breast implants were safe and that complications were rare.

Recent research on 123,255 Israeli women by Watad et al. concluded that breast implants
significantly increase the chances of a woman being diagnosed with several autoimmune
diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and Sjogren’s Syndrome. However, because the FDA has repeatedly denied a link between autoimmune or connective tissue symptoms and breast implants, insurance companies will rarely pay for the removal of implants for women with symptoms of breast implant illness, such as joint or muscle pain, chronic fatigue, mental confusion, rashes, hair loss, and persistent flu-like symptoms. Of the thousands of women who seek assistance from our organization, only about 20% are able to get their implants removed. Even fewer get insurance coverage for their medically necessary explant surgery. The rest have to empty their savings, rely on credit cards or loans, or borrow money from friends and family. Unfortunately, most women who are unable to get insurance coverage for their breast implant removal are also unable to afford to pay out-of-pocket for explant surgery, which is why so many live with debilitating symptoms and escalating health problems for years. What might start as gradual increases in symptoms become so debilitating that many of the women lose their jobs (and with it, often their insurance), their ability to care for themselves or their families, and sometimes their spouses.

Implications for the Registries

The PROFILE Registry is intended to gather information about patients with BIA-ALCL, but not other health problems. The National Breast Implant Registry is designed to include as many Board-Certified plastic surgeons and their patients as possible, and therefore focuses only on re-operations – information that is relatively easy for physicians to document. It does not include information about the range of life-changing symptoms that thousands of women have reported, and also fails to include the thousands of women who need to have their implants removed, but are financially unable to do so. As we have found in our program assisting women who desperately seek insurance coverage for explant surgery, the number of women who have their implants removed and not replaced is only a small percentage of the number of women who want explant surgery because of medical problems. The registry needs to be substantially improved by including information about the autoimmune and connective tissue disease diagnoses as well as the moderate to severe symptoms that women refer to as breast implant illness. In addition, registries need to include information from primary care physicians and non-surgical specialists who are often conducting medical tests in an effort to determine the cause of the women’s symptoms. Most women who experience autoimmune or other symptoms from their breast implants are making appointments with primary care physicians, rheumatologists, neurologists, and other specialists; they rarely return to their plastic surgeons because those symptoms aren’t clearly related to their implants. Moreover, they tell us that when they go to a plastic surgeon because they have heard from other patients that the symptoms may be related to their implants, most surgeons tell them they are mistaken.

Another major shortcoming of the current Registry is that the data from the Registry is not
available to researchers or the public unless the ASPS Foundation chooses to make it public. Since the FDA considers registries an important aspect of post-market surveillance, it is essential that the data be available to anyone who wants to analyze it.

If Implants Can Cause Serious Symptoms, Will Removal Improve Health?

Our Center recently conducted a study of 449 women who had sought our help and succeeded in having their implants removed in 2016, 2017, or 2018. Fifty-seven percent of the women filled out our online questionnaire, all between November 2018 and January 2019. All of the women who we contacted had provided medical information to us when we had previously tried to help them obtain insurance coverage for explant surgery. Fifty-nine percent of the women in the study had symptoms for more than 5 years before they had their breast implants removed and 25% reported having symptoms for more than 10 years before explant surgery. These findings are consistent with patients’ testimony at the FDA meeting and with what thousands of patients have told us over the years: Many women have had debilitating symptoms for years, but did not know they were linked to their breast implants. So, instead of removing their implants when they first noticed health problems, they waited years, and sometimes decades, to seek explant surgery without replacement. Whether because of lack of money or lack of information that their symptoms were caused by their implants, our findings suggest that a short, easy-to-understand booklet and informed consent checklist could help warn women with limited financial resources about the risks of breast implants and also help women recognize their symptoms and consider explant surgery as an option before their health deteriorates.

We asked about family and personal health history and found that 69% of the women in our study reported a family history of autoimmune disease, 3% reported a personal history of autoimmune symptoms prior to getting implants, and 51% of the women reported that they were newly diagnosed with an autoimmune disease after getting breast implants.

Using a Likert scale with responses ranging from “much worse” to “much better,’ 61% of the women reported that their symptoms were much better since getting their implants removed and an additional 29% reported that their symptoms were somewhat better after having their breast implants removed. After performing a logistic regression to determine the factors that independently predicted health improvement after explant surgery, having explant surgery that removed as much capsule as possible predicted improvement after explant, as did not having a family history of autoimmune disease.

Implications for Informed Consent

Although all implant companies have patient booklets, in our experience most women report never seeing those booklets. In addition, the booklets are much too long and technical; they range in length from 55 to 180 pages, and include a great deal of information that is difficult to understand or promotional rather than informational. Nevertheless, the patient booklets include important information, such as the warning that breast implants were not studied on women with a history of autoimmune disease and therefore the safety of implants is not established for those women. However, there is so much information in these lengthy booklets that these types of important warnings are unlikely to be noticed by either doctors or patients that read them.

Although all patients sign an “informed consent” document, many are too technical for the
average patient to understand and include information that may be vague or confusing. They are often signed without having been carefully read. Informed consent is supposed to be a process, not just a piece of paper. Patients tell us that regardless of what the informed consent forms stated, their plastic surgeons were very reassuring about how safe implants are, rather than being candid about the risks. At the FDA Advisory Committee meeting on March 25-26, many plastic surgeons spoke about how carefully they provide informed consent to their patients, but those claims were undermined by the fact that many of those same surgeons stated that their patients are very happy with their implants, that ALCL is very rare and ‘not a big deal’ if caught early, and that the symptoms of breast implant illness are the same symptoms that all women tend to have. It is obvious that these physicians are unable to provide objective, informed consent about risks if they think the risks are minimal or non-existent.

Improving Informed Consent

Women need better informed consent in terms of written material and in terms of what their physicians tell them. Patient booklets specific to each company and implant model should be no longer than 20 pages and written at an 8th grade reading level, which is the reading level recommended by health educators. They should include easy-to-understand information about complications and risks, including information about BIA-ALCL and symptoms of breast implant illness. They should also include information from studies indicating that many women with breast implant illness experience significant improvement when their implants and scar capsules are removed. The writing of these booklets should require consensus among a group of experts that includes patients harmed by implants and their physicians, Board-certified plastic surgeons who put in breast implants and Board-certified plastic surgeons who primarily explant, the relevant implant manufacturer, and health educators.

In addition, there should be a required checklist, no longer than 3-4 pages, that is similar to the one that the FDA required for Essure, that provides information about the potential risks of all breast implants including BIA-ALCL and breast implant illness. These should be read and signed by patients and their doctors prior to any nonrefundable deposits for surgery. The checklist should include a black box warning regarding BIA-ALCL and breast implant illness, and information about the potential improvement in health for women who have their implants removed and not replaced.

In conclusion, we urge the FDA to require an informed consent checklist that specifically and succinctly warns of the symptoms and disease development risks that the patients at this meeting have reported. We ask that the FDA require manufacturers to complete the large, long-term studies that evaluate systemic symptoms. And finally, we urge the FDA to develop a national registry that includes symptoms as well as re-operations.

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on this important issue.

For more information, please contact Diana Zuckerman, PhD, at dz@center4research.org.