FDA Safety Communication - Firmware Update to Address Cybersecurity Vulnerabilities Identified in Abbott's (formerly St. Jude Medical's) Implantable Cardiac Pacemakers

PUBLISHED: Aug 30, 2017
Relevant to: Ambulatory Care, Critical Access Hospitals, Hospitals, Long Term Care, Medical Office/Clinic

On August 23, 2017, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a firmware update that is now available and is intended as a recall, specifically a corrective action, to reduce the risk of patient harm due to potential exploitation of cybersecurity vulnerabilities for certain Abbott (formerly St. Jude Medical) pacemakers. "Firmware" is a specific type of software embedded in the hardware of a medical device (e.g. a component in the pacemaker).

For the purposes of this Safety Communication, cybersecurity focuses on protecting patients' medical devices and their associated computers, networks, programs, and data from unintended or unauthorized access, change, or destruction.

The FDA recommends that patients and their health care providers discuss the risks and benefits of the cybersecurity vulnerabilities and the associated firmware update designed to address such vulnerabilities at their next regularly scheduled visit.

This safety communication addresses

  • Patients with a radio frequency (RF)-enabled St. Jude Medical implantable pacemaker
  • Caregivers of patients with an RF-enabled St. Jude Medical implantable cardiac pacemaker
  • Cardiologists, electrophysiologists, cardiothoracic surgeons, and primary care physicians treating patients with heart failure or heart rhythm problems using an RF-enabled St. Jude Medical implantable cardiac pacemaker

Abbott's (formerly St. Jude Medical's) implantable cardiac pacemakers, including cardiac resynchronization therapy pacemaker (CRT-P) devices, provide pacing for slow or irregular heart rhythms. These devices are implanted under the skin in the upper chest area and have connecting insulated wires called "leads" that go into the heart. A patient may need an implantable cardiac pacemaker if their heartbeat is too slow (bradycardia) or needs resynchronization to treat heart failure.

The devices addressed in this communication are the following St. Jude Medical pacemaker and CRT-P devices:

  • Accent
  • Anthem
  • Accent MRI
  • Accent ST
  • Assurity
  • Allure

This communication does NOT apply to any implantable cardiac defibrillators (ICDs) or to cardiac resynchronization ICDs (CRT-Ds).

According to the FDA, many medical devices - including St. Jude Medical's implantable cardiac pacemakers - contain configurable embedded computer systems that can be vulnerable to cybersecurity intrusions and exploits. As medical devices become increasingly interconnected via the Internet, hospital networks, other medical devices, and smartphones, there is an increased risk of exploitation of cybersecurity vulnerabilities, some of which could affect how a medical device operates.

The FDA has reviewed information concerning potential cybersecurity vulnerabilities associated with St. Jude Medical's RF-enabled implantable cardiac pacemakers and has confirmed that these vulnerabilities, if exploited, could allow an unauthorized user (i.e. someone other than the patient's physician) to access a patient's device using commercially available equipment. This access could be used to modify programming commands to the implanted pacemaker, which could result in patient harm from rapid battery depletion or administration of inappropriate pacing.

There are no known reports of patient harm related to the cybersecurity vulnerabilities in the 465,000 (US) implanted devices impacted.

The FDA’s safety communication contains details of the firmware update and several recommendations for healthcare providers. Below are a few of the recommendations, please read the complete safety communication, link below, for additional information.

Recommendations for Health Care Providers:

  • The FDA and Abbott do NOT recommend prophylactic removal and replacement of affected devices.
  • Discuss the risks and benefits of the cybersecurity vulnerabilities and associated firmware update with your patients at the next regularly scheduled visit. As part of this discussion, it is important to consider each patient's circumstances, such as pacemaker dependence, age of the device, and patient preference, and provide them with Abbott's Patient Guide.
  • Determine if the update is appropriate for the given patient based on the potential benefits and risks. If deemed appropriate, install the firmware update following the instructions on the programmer.
    • For pacing dependent patients, consider performing the cybersecurity firmware update in a facility where temporary pacing and pacemaker generator can be readily provided.
  • Print or digitally store the programmed device settings and the diagnostic data in case of loss during the update.
  • After the update, confirm that the device maintains its functionality, is not in backup mode, and that the programmed parameters have not changed.

Want to read the full alert and receive alert emails?

Browse Additional Alerts