The 2007 Medtronic Sprint Fidelis Defibrillator Lead Recall could just be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to defective implantable medical devices. That’s because the number of medical devices meant to be implanted in patients’ bodies is rapidly rising. Unfortunately, despite their rising numbers, as the case of the Sprint Fidelis Lead recall illustrates, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is doing a poor job of regulating implantable devices, and often ignores reports of device failures until someone dies.
Medtronic suspended sales of the Sprint Fidelis Leads in October, after receiving reports of 5 fatalities linked to lead fractures. A lead is a wire that connects an implantable defibrillator to the heart. When it breaks, the defibrillator can emit a massive and painful shock. And in the worse case scenario, the fractured lead can prevent a defibrillator from sending a necessary, lifesaving shock to the heart. Replacing a lead is not an easy procedure, as the invasive surgery can cause the tissue of the blood vessels and heart to tear. In fact, replacing a defibrillator lead is so risky that patients with Sprint Fidelis Leads are being told to leave the defective components in place unless they fracture.
Since it was put on the market in 2004, Sprint Fidelis Leads have been implanted with 90% of Medtronic’s defibrillators. According to the Wall Street Journal, 268,000 defective Sprint Fidelis Leads have been implanted worldwide, and about 235,000 people still have these leads in their chests. But in spite of such widespread use, the FDA never required the Sprint Fidelis Leads to be tested in humans before they were marketed, and it did not monitor the device after it was introduced.
Within a couple of years of the Sprint Fidelis Lead’s introduction, emergency rooms around the country began to see patients injured by the fractured device. The problems were disturbing enough that the Minneapolis Heart Institute decided to conduct a data analysis of Sprint Fidelis Lead fracture reports from hospital databases around the country.
The researchers found that the thinner Sprint Fidelis lead had a higher chance of fracturing than the Sprint Quattro. As a result of those findings, the Minneapolis Heart Institute quit using the Sprint Fidelis lead, and the study authors informed the FDA that the defective Sprint Fidelis Lead was "significantly less reliable" than its predecessor. While Medtronic did write a letter to doctors in March 2007 warning them of the Sprint Fidelis lead’s possible problems, the company maintained that the fractures were partly the result of the components not being properly implanted.
Despite being informed of the Minneapolis Heart Institute’s Sprint Fidelis Lead study, the FDA did nothing. An FDA spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal in October that the agency did not require any post-market surveillance of the Sprint Fidelis Lead because "no issues were raised in the premarket review that suggested the need for a postmarket study." It wasn’t until 5 patients died that the defective Medtronic Sprint Fidelis Lead was removed from the market.
Because of the FDA’s poor oversight of implantable medical devices, thousands of people with Medtronic Sprint Fidelis Defibrillator Leads must live with the knowledge that the defective component could fail at anytime. In general, this poor FDA oversight means that patients with any type of implantable medical device can’t be sure that they don’t face similar dangers.