On May 22, 2008, FDA launched the “Sentinel Initiative” – a new program with the goal of creating and implementing the Sentinel System–a national, integrated, electronic system for monitoring medical product safety.
The Sentinel System, once in place, will enable FDA to pose targeted queries (consistent with privacy and security safeguards) of patient registry data, insurance claims data, and other large health care information databases, for information about medical products. FDA says this new system will strengthen the agency’s ability to monitor the performance of a product throughout its entire life cycle, thus enhancing the protection and promotion of public health.
FDA’s current post-market surveillance programs generate very important new risk information, but the adverse event reporting system depends on health care professionals and patients first recognizing a potential association between an adverse effect and a medical product, and then report it to FDA or the manufacturer. Some adverse events are never reported.
Once the Sentinel System is up and running, FDA will have the tools to query specific adverse event data in large databases, like the Medicare database and in claims data and electronic health information maintained by private and federal entities who volunteer to participate in the Sentinel System. That is, the System will be created through public-private partnerships. It will rely on existing large electronic claims and medical records data sources maintained by private and government entities that agree to participate in this nationwide effort.
Creating an advanced surveillance system like Sentinel was one of the recommendations made by the Institute of Medicine in its 2006 report on ways to improve the safe use of drugs. The Food and Drug Administration Amendments Act of 2007 includes provisions that call for the development of such a system. FDA believes patients will benefit because the agency will be able to identify potential problems sooner, better understand those problems, and ultimately, help health professionals and patients use medical products more safely.
The overall initiative is described in an FDA white paper titled, “The Sentinel Initiative—A National Strategy for Monitoring Medical Product Safety.” The report is available at here.
Such a system could also ultimately facilitate data mining and other research-related activities. Researchers have said its full effects would take years to realize, however.
It is interesting to speculate about the potential impact of the system, especially on products liability litigation. Medicare collects data typically only when a medical provider is seeking payment. This claims data is less complete, and potentially less accurate than actual patient health records. Thus, utilizing Medicare data to assess health outcomes of drug use may be problematic. Of course, the new system doesn’t change the reality that sometimes patients suffer adverse events after receiving drugs because they are sick, not because the drug has a problem. And Medicare recipients use an average of 28 prescriptions in a year, compared with an average among all Americans of something like 12 prescriptions. Sorting out which medicine caused any single problem – if any did — can be difficult.
In mass tort litigation, as readers of MassTortDefense know, plaintiffs frequently will attack defendants’ AER system, the resources devoted, the quality of the reporting. Even more frequently, plaintiffs will allege that the AE reports revealed a “signal” far sooner and far more clearly than the company thought; that the defendant missed or ignored the signal about potential adverse events in order to avoid the financial impact of a new label with a stronger warning. But if the FDA will eventually be able to query databases of tens of millions of patients almost simultaneously, presumably it will no longer have to wait for reports from the field, and the allegations of “missed signals” may lose all force.
To assess the accuracy of the Sentinel system, the FDA will initially conduct studies of drug side-effects that are already well known. And despite the issues, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America supported the FDA initiative, see here, because it will allow regulators and health care professionals to move from reliance on voluntary reporting of side effects to a more proactive monitoring of medicines.