There are three classes of medical devices in the United States, all regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Class III devices have the highest risk profile and therefore have the most significant regulatory requirements. In the United States, a Class III device is also a device that has no substantial equivalence to an existing Class I or II device. This means that if there is no device with similar intended use and indications for use, or if the device is using novel technology, it will be classified as Class III by default. To find substantially equivalent devices, use the FDA’s product classification database. Because medical device classification in the U.S. also depends on risk level, there are exceptions for novel devices with lower risk profiles (see De Novo classification process).
Class III devices “usually sustain or support life, are implanted, or present potential unreasonable risk of illness or injury.” Only 10% of medical devices marketed in the U.S. fall under this category.
Examples of Class III devices include:
Almost all Class III medical devices in the United States require premarket approval (PMA) from the FDA before being marketed. Due to the high risk profile of Class III devices, the PMA process requires significant data to demonstrate the safety and efficacy of the device. Unlike Class II devices which require a 510(k) premarket notification, the PMA process requires a thorough review by the FDA that results in their approval of the product for entry into the U.S. market.
The PMA process is defined in Title 21 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 814 and a full overview of the process is included in our Beginner’s Guide to the FDA PMA Submission Process. A PMA will almost always require:
Note that there are exceptions to PMA requirements, most notably the humanitarian device exemption, designed to encourage investment in devices that would serve a small population. See the FDA’s Acceptance and Filing Reviews for Premarket Approval Applications (PMAs) for more information.
Medical device manufacturers and distributors must also conform with specific requirements once a product is being sold in the market. These requirements include:
Device classification is different in each country, therefore you should not make any assumptions regarding classification in other countries based on the fact that your device is a Class III device in the United States. Each country with medical device regulations has their own classification scheme that may cause your device to be regulated in a different way. During the initial phase of planning for global commercialization of a product, it is imperative that you consider international regulations, their classification schemes, and the registrations that each country will require.
For additional information on the Class III approval process, read our Beginner’s Guide to the FDA PMA Submission Process.