Cutting the Wires: FDA Provides Industry Guidance

By: Bakul Patel

The medical device industry has gone wireless. 

Many medical devices today perform at least one function by using wireless technology to support health care delivery. In telemedicine, for example, a wireless device can enable real-time monitoring of patients from a distance – data from a patient-worn or implanted medical device goes directly to the health care professional. The transfer of data is immediate, accelerating communication, decision time and when necessary, intervention. 

However, the stakes can get high. 

What if a diabetic’s blood glucose monitor malfunctions and sends a wrong glucose reading to a doctor because another wireless device in the clinic interfered with its signal? What if a signal is completely interrupted from a monitor that the patient depends on to transmit time-sensitive health care data?  In such cases, the proper functioning of wireless medical devices can mean the difference – literally – between life and death. 

It is FDA’s role to assure that before such wireless medical devices are introduced into the marketplace, that they have been properly tested. It is essential that manufacturers first consider and test potential limitations of the wireless connectivity associated with their devices to prevent malfunctions that could harm patients. 

There are many factors to consider. For example, is there enough bandwidth (the range of available frequencies) available? In an environment crowded with different kinds of wireless devices, is there a possibility that interference could critically affect the device’s function? 

Today, FDA published the final guidance entitled, “Guidance for Industry and Food and Drug Administration Staff; Radio Frequency Wireless Technology in Medical Devices,” to help industry navigate such challenges. Our recommendations cover devices that are implanted or worn on the body, and others intended for use in locations such as hospitals, homes, clinics, and clinical laboratories. They cover such considerations that relate to the design, testing, deployment  and maintenance of safe, reliable, and secure wireless medical devices and systems. 

For example, designers and manufacturers of wireless medical devices should consider whether these devices can function properly in the environments where they are intended to be used. Another consideration is wireless coexistence. Given the limited availability of the radio frequency spectrum, wireless technologies may compete for access to the same spectrum. As a result, coexistence issues may pose risks that could result in medical device signal loss or delay that can be life-threatening. 

This guidance reflects FDA’s ongoing commitment to the practice of regulatory science; that is, the science of developing new tools, standards, and approaches to assess the safety, efficacy, quality, and performance of all FDA-regulated products. In this instance, FDA worked closely with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which in 2009 was charged by Congress to develop a National Broadband Plan to ensure every American has access to wireless technology and to delineate the respective areas of expertise and jurisdiction between the agencies. 

In a prior meeting with FCC, FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D., said that while the benefits of RF wireless technology are clear, “to harness the full power of these benefits, we must navigate a delicate balance between innovation and safety and effectiveness.” 

We hope this guidance accomplishes just that. Our goal is to help industry develop a range of innovative, safe, and effective medical devices that incorporate wireless technology, which can, in turn, help reduce health care costs, enhance quality, and benefit patients and providers alike.

Bakul Patel is senior policy advisor in FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health.

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