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Device warning letters plunged nearly 90% over 5 years. An FDA official predicts a rebound

David Lim, MedTech Dive: January 10, 2020


FDA warning letters to medical device manufacturers slid by nearly 90% between 2015 and 2019, but may be set to rebound upward in 2020, according to device center Associate Director for Compliance and Quality Erin Keith. Warning letters are used by FDA to alert a manufacturer it “has significantly violated FDA regulations,” such as misstating what a device is indicated for or having poor manufacturing practices, according to the agency.

Warning letters are used by FDA to alert a manufacturer it “has significantly violated FDA regulations,” such as misstating what a device is indicated for or having poor manufacturing practices, according to the agency.

The downturn in Center for Devices and Radiological Health warning letters from 81 in fiscal year 2015 to nine in 2019 comes amid a major effort to reorganize the FDA device center that proved “very disruptive to the compliance office,” Keith said.

“It is organized in a different way now than it was in the past, so the processes have had to be worked out,” Keith told the Food and Drug Law Institute’s annual compliance conference in December. “We can’t issue a warning letter if we don’t do it timely, according to the evidential requirements.”

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Still, some patient safety advocates are concerned the drop in warning letters cannot be entirely attributed to the restructuring changes at the agency.

“I don’t think that downward trend can adequately be explained by the reorganization that is taking place,” Public Citizen Health Research Group Director Mike Carome said.

Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research, said the trend is emblematic of a regulator that is overly focused on pleasing industry.

“It could have several different causes, reorganization could be one. [Medical Device User Fee Amendments] regulations could be part of it, which requires more meetings. But there is this emphasis on customer service, which is defined as making life easier for the industry. Industry is an important customer, but so is the American taxpayer,” Zuckerman said.

Over the past decade, the device center has also focused on shifting how it communicates with manufacturers, focusing on pushing companies to prioritize making decisions that improve quality and patient outcomes rather than simply achieving compliance with regulatory requirements. The goal, Keith said, is to have companies address potential issues before they rise to the warning letter stage.

“We as a philosophy for the center don’t want to have to go to enforcement,” Keith said. “We want to get to problems when they are smaller and easier to fix.”

Another method FDA has utilized is increasing the number of alternative methods of disseminating information, such as issuing Letters to Health Care Providers and Safety Communications. For example, in April 2019, the agency issued a safety communication alerting patients and providers of mammography problems at a medical clinic in Ohio, noting the facility “was unable to meet the parameters for a key quality control test on the day of the 2018 annual inspection.” FDA noted in the safety communication quality problems at East Palestine Family Medical Clinic dated back to October 2017, and recommended patients screened at the facility receive an additional mammography.

“I think it’s important that we won’t wait to let people know that there is an issue patients and providers need to know about by letting a compliance process catch up to documentation,” Keith told MedTech Dive. “Sometimes we can get what we need, have the public know what’s going on and get a change by sharing information. When it’s more appropriate to use a more traditional compliance activity, we will do that.”

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