At that time, Guidant, later acquired by Boston Scientific, was accused of hiding data that certain of its defibrillator models failed, possibly leading to preventable patient deaths (see this post and follow links backward). Boston Scientific, which acquired Guidant, settled a civil lawsuit and was put on probation in 2011 after it pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of failing to file required reports with the US Food and Drug Administration (see post here). Similarly, in 2010, Medtronic settled multiple patients' lawsuits charging that it knowingly marketed a faulty ICD (see post here).
St Jude and the Obscure Riata Data
Now in 2012, A Wall Street Journal article suggested that St Jude Medical Inc hid problems with its Riata implanted cardiac defibrillator (ICD) for years.
In December, 2010, St Jude Medical Inc issued a warning letter to doctors: Wires inside Riata defibrillator leads—cables that connect the heart to implantable defibrillators—were sometimes breaking through their insulation from the inside out.The Journal article noted that more transparency about device failures might allow physicians to spot problems earlier and prevent harm to patients.
The problem, which ultimately led to a recall last year, could cause defibrillators to send unnecessary jolts to the heart or fail to deliver lifesaving shocks to return chaotic heart rhythms back to normal. The company said it had identified dozens of cases with visible signs of the problem, and pulled Riata from the market.
For many doctors, this was the first notice of a problem with Riata.
But before that 2010 warning, physicians including Alan Cheng, director of Johns Hopkins Medicine's arrhythmia service; Samir Saba, chief of electrophysiology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center; and Ernest Lau at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, Ireland, say they had encountered this so-called "inside-out abrasion" in their own practices between 2006 and 2009. When these doctors brought the incidents to the attention of St. Jude they say they were told by company officials and field representatives that the incidents were isolated. The malfunctions described by the doctors didn't result in deaths.
St. Jude had been tracking the problem for several years, according to company documents collected by the Food and Drug Administration and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Cases involving the so-called inside-out abrasion date to at least October 2005, the documents show. Inside-out abrasion became a focus of an internal St. Jude audit, which examined multiple cases of the failure before April 2008.
more than a dozen physicians and device-safety experts say that if St. Jude had acknowledged the inside-out failure earlier, physicians might have identified the scope of the problem sooner.Summary
In some cases, doctors concede that they, too, believed the failures were isolated and therefore didn't act quickly to report problems to St. Jude or the FDA, which may have made it harder to spot the growing trend of failures. The leads were implanted in more than 13,000 patients since July 2008.
'Every time you have a failed lead, you assume it's an isolated event, but, you start to string together isolated events, and then you have a recall,' said Dr. Saba.
So, for Health Care Renewal, this is a straightforward case, at least so far. Yet another health care organization, this time, a medical device company, failed to reveal data that might have reflected unfavorably on one of its products, and hence lead to decreases in short-term revenue. However, by suppressing the information, the company may have allowed doctors to keep implanting a potentially faulty device, and exposed patients to risk, possibly of fatality.
We have discussed many at least somewhat parallel cases of suppression of research (here), and many cases of other kinds of deception by health care organizations (here). Yet these cases continue to occur, physicians and other health care professionals continue to be fooled by secrecy and data suppression, and patients continue to be harmed by drugs, devices, or other interventions made by people who knew, or ought to have known that they were more dangerous than they appeared to be.
One problem may be that the people with the most influence on medical practice and health policy continue to cheer lead for the veracity of information about drugs, devices, and other health care interventions supplied by the people who most stand to gain from selling same. A few weeks ago, the editor of the august New England Journal of Medicine, Dr Jeffrey M Drazen MD, scoffed at physicians' skepticism of pharmaceutical industry funded clinical research, claiming that there were only "a few examples of industry misuse of publications...." [Drazen JM. Believe the data. N Engl J Med 2012; 367:1152-1153. Link here.] In doing so, Dr Drazen seemed to ignore all the stories about suppression of medical research (some of which we have discussed here), manipulation of medical research (some discussed here), and deception (some discussed here) and secrecy (some discussed here) practiced by large health care organizations, including but not limited to drug, device, biotechnology, and health care information technology companies.
Instead, the possibility that St Jude kept hidden data about the failings of one of its ICD models reminds us how skeptical we ought to be about the information provided, or not provided by those with vested interests in selling health care goods or services. Physicians, health care professionals, those interested in health policy, and the public at large need to collectively exert pressure on the leaders of health care organizations to promote greater transparency, especially about data reflecting on benefits and harms of health care goods and services. .