Software-Related Recalls of Health Information Technology and Other Medical Devices: Implications for FDA Regulation of Digital Health

Policy Points:

  • Medical software has become an increasingly critical component of health care, yet the regulation of these devices is inconsistent and controversial.
  • No studies of medical devices and software assess the impact on patient safety of the FDA’s current regulatory safeguards and new legislative changes to those standards.
  • Our analysis indicates that current regulations are necessary but not sufficient for ensuring patient safety
  • New laws will reduce safeguards that facilitate the reporting and timely recall of flawed medical software that could harm patients.

Context: Medical software has become an increasingly critical component of health care, yet the regulatory landscape for digital health is inconsistent and controversial. To understand which policies might best protect patients, we examined the impact of the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) regulatory safeguards on software-related technologies in recent years and the implications for newly passed legislative changes in regulatory policy.

Methods: Using FDA databases, we identified all medical devices that were recalled from 2011 through 2015 primarily because of software defects. We counted all software-related recalls for each FDA risk category and evaluated each high-risk and moderate-risk recall of electronic medical records to determine the manufacturer, device classification, submission type, number of units, and product details.

Findings: A total of 627 software devices (1.4 million units) were subject to recalls, with 12 of these devices (190,596 units) subject to the highest-risk recalls. Eleven of the devices recalled as high risk had entered the market through the FDA review process that does not require evidence of safety or effectiveness, and one device was completely exempt from regulatory review. The largest high-risk recall categories were anesthesiology and general hospital, with one each in cardiovascular and neurology. Five electronic medical record systems (9,347 units) were recalled for software defects classified as posing a moderate risk to patient safety.

Conclusions: Software problems in medical devices are not rare and have the potential to negatively influence medical care. Premarket regulation has not captured all the software issues that could harm patients, evidenced by the potentially large number of patients exposed to software products later subject to high-risk and moderate-risk recalls. Provisions of the 21st Century Cures Act that became law in late 2016 will reduce safeguards further. Absent stronger regulations and implementation to create robust risk assessment and adverse event reporting, physicians and their patients are likely to be at risk from medical errors caused by software-related problems in medical devices.