By David Orentlicher
In its regulation of medical devices, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may ban devices that pose “an unreasonable and substantial risk of illness or injury.” But earlier this month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit decided that the FDA may not issue a partial ban of a medical device.
The case, Judge Rotenberg Educational Center v. FDA, addressed the use of electrical stimulation devices to treat self-injurious or aggressive behavior, as in patients with serious intellectual or developmental disabilities.
In March 2020, the FDA attempted to prohibit this use of electrical stimulation (or electrical shock) because of the risks it poses to patients. As the FDA observed, persons with self-injurious or aggressive behavior may have “difficulty communicating pain and other harms caused by” electrical stimulation, and consent to the use of electrical stimulation is typically made by a third party, limiting the patient’s control over use of the device.
In other settings, including smoking cessation treatment, or treatment of substance use disorder, the FDA permits the practice. Hence the partial, rather than total, ban of electrical stimulation devices.
But by a 2-1 vote, the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center court held that prohibiting electrical stimulation in some settings, but not others, runs afoul of a “practice of medicine” statutory provision. This provision precludes the FDA from limiting or interfering with a health care practitioner’s authority “to prescribe or administer any legally marketed device to a patient for any condition or disease.” In the majority’s view, once the FDA permits use of a medical device, it must defer to the states for regulation of decisions regarding which patients are appropriate candidates for the device.