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US regulatory bodies respond to rapid rise of modern wireless technology and apps for medical devices

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The proliferation of broadband and wireless-enabled medical devices has prompted the FDA and US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to issue a joint plan aimed at bringing clarity to the issue.

Although these devices represent the opportunity to enhance health and reduce the costs of healthcare, they aren’t without a few risks too. The devices, which include wireless sensors that remotely monitor heart rhythm and portable glucose monitoring systems, are increasingly playing a major role in treatments.

The US government agencies have come to the conclusion that clear guidelines are needed to make sure these devices are operated in a safe, reliable and secure manner. The FDA, in particular, is of the opinion that the industry, healthcare providers, patients, and other interested stakeholders in the medical environment should have clear regulatory pathways, processes and standards to bring the technology to market.

Although specific details are thin on the ground at the moment, the aim still pretty noble enough. “All Americans should be afforded the opportunity to benefit from medical technology advances with improved broadband and wireless technology” – the communiqué boldly claims.  At the end of the day though, by clarifying each agency’s scope of authority with respect to these devices, the hope is that interested parties will get a clearer picture of the regulatory process, streamline the application process, and make sure that innovation doesn’t get stifled through bureaucracy.
The move comes as the FDA grapples with even more complex issue of software applications (apps), the likes of which are increasingly been used in mobile medical technology, such as mobile phones, tablet computers and PDAs.

In general, the FDA’s position is that if a mobile app is intended for use in performing a medical device function it is a medical device, regardless of the platform on which it is run. This can range from mobile apps used on mobile phones to analyse glucose meter readings.

In consultation with the US public, the agency is looking to establish formal guidance that define a small subset of mobile medical apps that impact or may impact the performance or functionality of currently regulated medical devices. The offending apps could be used as an accessory to medical device already regulated by the FDA transform a mobile communications device into a regulated medical device by using attachments, sensors or other devices.

There’s an obvious need for some kind of monitoring in this area. Nowadays an app can be used by a healthcare professional to make a specific diagnosis by viewing a medical image on a mobile phone or tablet, whilst some apps can turn a smartphone into an ECG machine and be used to detect abnormal heart rhythms or determine if a patient is experiencing a heart attack. Understandably, the FDA is of the opinion that these particular mobile apps pose the same or similar potential risk to the public health as currently regulated devices if they fail to function as intended.

The FDA has set a deadline for 19th October 2011 for interest parties – including manufacturers and app developers, to submit comments relating to the agency’s draft policy document, with a view to formulating clear guidance on the matter once and for all.  One thing is for sure, it’s a good idea to revise the present guidelines – the FDA’s last significant attempt to address the topic was made in 1989!

Thanks to Lawrence Miller for yet another great article, Lawrence is the Espicom’s editor for Medical Industry Week, and medical newsletter teamleader. For more articles like this, or to start your subscription please click on the link to Medical Industry Week

 



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