In an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal Scott Gottlieb, a former FDA official under George W. Bush, argues that the FDA should stop requiring medical device companies to use sham procedures when they test certain new products. To support his argument he uses the example of renal denervation, a once highly promising new technology for lowering blood pressure. Unfortunately, Gottlieb extracts exactly the wrong lesson from this story, because the renal denervation story is a perfect example of why sham procedures can be both necessary and more ethical than any alternative.
At first glance it’s hard to disagree with Gottlieb. The idea that patients would receive an invasive surgical procedure that could do no good appears abhorrent. “Research that introduces harm or risk with no opportunity for benefit would seem to conflict with the principles governing research on humans,” writes Gottlieb.
But the same exact words could and should be used to describe medical devices with no proven benefit. In such cases, however, instead of the relatively small number of patients potentially exposed to harm in clinical studies, the number of patients exposed to harm in the real world may be larger by many orders of magnitude.
Let’s examine this issue using the same example used by Gottlieb: renal denervation….