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New Efforts to Help Improve Medical Products for Patient Safety and Quality of Medical Care


HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt today announced efforts underway at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) that will complement each other to improve patient safety and the quality of medical care.

“This initiative will tremendously increase the FDA’s capacity to monitor the use of medical products on the market,” Secretary Leavitt said. “We are moving from reactive dependence on voluntary reporting of safety concerns -- to proactive surveillance of medical products on the market. In addition, Medicare data on prescription drug use will be available to help government agencies and academic researchers improve the safety, quality and efficiency of health care services.”

In a white paper released by the FDA today, the agency describes plans for the Sentinel Initiative, which will include the development of a new electronic system that will enable FDA to query a broad array of information to identify possible post-market adverse events. That Sentinel System will be created through public-private partnerships and will capitalize on existing large electronic claims and medical records data sources maintained by private and government entities that agree to participate in this nationwide effort.

A CMS final regulation published today will make it possible for federal agencies, states, and academic researchers to use claims data from the Medicare prescription drug program (Part D) -- subject to protections for beneficiary privacy and commercially sensitive data -- for public health and safety research, quality initiatives, care coordination and other research and analysis.

The Sentinel System is an important example of how electronic health records and other electronic health information, such as the Medicare data, can help move the nation toward a system that delivers safer and better quality health care. President Bush has set the goal of most Americans having access to an interoperable electronic health record by 2014.

FDA’s Proposed Sentinel System Will Strengthen Safety Monitoring of Drugs and Other Medical Products

The new FDA white paper, titled “The Sentinel Initiative -- A National Strategy for Monitoring Medical Product Safety,” describes the proposed Sentinel System and calls for a public-private collaboration to develop and implement it. The report is available at: The system would enable FDA to analyze significantly more information than it can today by tapping into vast databases of health information to detect early signs of emerging safety problems.

“With the Sentinel System we will no longer have to wait years to see how a drug or medical device is affecting millions of people,” said FDA Commissioner Andrew C. von Eschenbach, M.D. “The era of ‘wait and see’ is going to become the era of ‘tell me right now.’ By harnessing the world’s most powerful information technologies, and by partnering with CMS, the VA and DoD, and an array of private health care organizations, we will have the ability to monitor a product’s performance in millions of patients in real time. The Sentinel System will give us an unprecedented ability to detect problems as they first begin to surface.”

Creating an active surveillance system such as the Sentinel System was one of the recommendations made by the Institute of Medicine in a 2006 report on ways to improve the safe use of drugs. The recently passed Food and Drug Administration Amendments Act of 2007 (FDAAA) includes provisions that call for the development of such a system. As planned, the Sentinel System will fulfill some requirements of FDAAA while also meeting additional FDA needs.

Access to CMS Data Will Facilitate Public Health and Safety Research and Quality Initiatives

“We look forward to working with the FDA on the Sentinel Initiative,” said CMS Acting Administrator Kerry Weems. “There’s a clear nexus between the data collected through Medicare’s prescription drug program and the FDA’s role in protecting the public from adverse events. The public health and safety benefits from this cooperative venture with the FDA will be substantial.”

Weems noted that CMS’s most recent survey of beneficiaries indicates that people with Medicare use more than twice as many medications in a year as do other Americans. Medicare beneficiaries use an average of 28 prescriptions in a year, while those who consider themselves in poor health have about 45 prescriptions in a year (source: Medicare current beneficiary survey, 2004). In contrast, other Americans use about 13 prescriptions a year, according to a 2007 study by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality ( Medicare beneficiaries’ high usage of medications, coupled with numerous chronic health conditions, puts this population segment at higher risk of adverse drug events than other Americans and makes them the group most likely to see benefits from the FDA’s new Sentinel Initiative.

The Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit data, linked to Medicare inpatient and outpatient claims data, will allow the creation of a highly robust HHS database as the prototype for the Sentinel System. Publication of the Medicare Part D Claims Data Rule enables the FDA to use Part D claims data as the FDA explores drug safety questions related to particular products. Medicare’s Part D prescription drug program, implemented in January 2006, has generated claims data on medications used by the more than 25 million beneficiaries with prescription drug coverage under the benefit. Linking these data on prescription drug use to other Medicare claims information, including diagnoses, medical treatments, hospitalizations, and physician services, will provide the FDA, other agencies, and researchers with a powerful new tool to investigate potential drug safety problems and questions about health outcomes. With approximately 1 billion claims per year, the Medicare Part D database is unprecedented in size and scope and will be a valuable resource for patient safety analyses that will benefit not only Medicare beneficiaries but the entire nation.

Publication of the final rule today will enable CMS to use Medicare Part D claims data for research, program oversight and evaluation, care coordination, quality improvement, and performance measurement initiatives. In compliance with beneficiary privacy protections, as required by the Federal Privacy Act and HIPAA regulations, and while protecting commercially sensitive data, Medicare drug claims will be linked to other Medicare information on patient care, such as hospitalizations and physician visits, and made available to other federal agencies, state Medicaid programs, researchers, and beneficiaries for their personal health records.

CMS will be developing guidelines and workshops to inform researchers on how they can request these data.


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