"I went in [the hospital] barely able to walk right with no control over my bladder and bowel function," Marti Conger said.
Marti Conger was on the verge of paralysis. Two degenerative discs in her spine left her in severe pain and doctors suggested spinal fusion.
"Once you have fusion, you are a permanent patient," Marti said.
So Marti did her research and found a factory just outside her own city that manufactures disc implants, but they are not FDA approved in the U,S. They were approved in Europe in 2005!
"I ended up going to southern England and getting a device that's made 40 miles from here," Marti said. "I was basically stripped of all financial resources."
Devices like Marti's are becoming available years earlier in other countries. The watchman, which can reduce stroke risk by 75 percent in certain heart patients , is used in more than 30 countries and has been approved in Europe since 2009. Despite a 7 to 5 vote in favor of approval, the FDA requested another safety study. The Cypass Micro-Stent , a treatment for glaucoma, has been approved in Europe for three years but is not expected to be FDA approved for another four.
"Every day I have patients that could benefit from some of these things that we just don't have available in the united states," David Chang, M.D., a clinical professor and president of the American society of cataract & refractive surgery at the University of California, San Francisco, explained.
Doctor David Chang believes the FDA's approval system needs work.
"The process has just become overly burdensome, overly predictable, and overly time-consuming," Dr. Chang said.
In Europe, a device must be safe. In the U.S, it must be safe and effective. European approvals are handled by third parties. In the U.S it's only the FDA. But a report finds the device recall rate is similar in the U.S. and Europe, suggesting faster approvals don't necessarily compromise patient safety.
"No one wants to lower the bar in terms of safety," Dr. Chang said. "The problem is you can take that mandate a little too far, and you can go so far to one extreme that you don't approve anything."
The FDA stands by their careful, and sometimes longer, approval process for high-risk devices. In a recent report they cite 12 products approved in Europe that were later found to be dangerous or ineffective and in a written statement to us, the FDA said they are working with other countries to create a "new international forum to accelerate and expand efforts to harmonize device regulatory systems and to share best practices."
Since her overseas surgery Marti's become a patient advocate even testifying before congress for an FDA.
"When they say they 'assess' risk, they want us to believe it's risk to our health, and it's really risk to their bad PR," Marti said.
Too much regulation or not enough? it's a question with no easy answers. Doctor Chang says the lengthy approval process has more and more medical manufacturing companies moving abroad and marketing their products in other countries first. He also says the cost of approval is about half in Europe as it is in the U.S. Meanwhile the FDA points out U.S. patients have access to low and moderate risk devices at least as early as patients in Europe.