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  • Maureen May

Understanding FDA Medical Device Classes & Their Distinctions

Medical devices play a crucial role in the modern healthcare landscape. These technologies have transformed the way healthcare professionals deliver care, empowering them to provide more accurate, efficient, and personalized treatments. From simple tools like syringes and bandages to complex imaging equipment and robotic surgical systems, medical devices have become an integral part of the healthcare landscape.


For manufacturers and distributors involved in the world of medical devices, it's essential to understand the regulations and guidelines set by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). One crucial aspect is the classification of medical devices. This classification not only determines the type of premarket submissions and applications required by the FDA, but also creates a roadmap for compliance throughout the product lifecycle, ultimately ensuring patient safety.

In this article, we explore the complexities of the FDA medical device classification system. We will delve into the nuances of medical device classification, exploring the key differences between the FDA medical device classes (Class I, II, and III) and how this classification impacts the regulatory controls and pathways to market. By understanding the intricacies of this process, medical device manufacturers can navigate the regulatory landscape with confidence, optimizing their time and resources to bring their innovations to the patients who need them most

What is a Medical Device?


The FDA, through its Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH), regulates medical devices to ensure they are safe and effective when used as directed. Section 201(h) of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act defines medical device as “any instrument, machine, contrivance, implant, in vitro reagent that's intended to treat, cure, prevent, mitigate, diagnose disease in man”.


The medical device must also not achieve its primary intended use through a chemical activation on or within the skin, and must not be required to be metabolized to achieve the primary intended use. If the device meets one of these requirements, the product would then be regulated as a drug.


Medical devices must further meet the requirements for “intended for use in the diagnosis of disease or other conditions, or in the cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease in man or other animals, or intended to affect the structure or any function of the body of man or other animals.”


Currently, the CDRH regulates about 1700 devices that have been classified by the FDA. These devices can be found in 16 medical specialties or device panels which are outlined in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Title 21, Parts 862 to 892. Once manufacturers ensure the products they intend to manufacture meet FDA’s medical device definition, classification of the device must be determined. 


Overview of FDA Medical Device Classes

FDA regulates medical devices into three classifications based on the level of risk they pose to patients and regulatory controls needed to ensure product safety.  Classification of a medical device is determined by various factors, including its intended use, duration of contact with the body, and the potential harm it could cause if it malfunctions.

Class I devices pose the lowest risk and are subject to general controls, while Class II devices pose a moderate risk and require specific controls to ensure their safety and effectiveness. Class III devices pose the highest risk and undergo the most rigorous regulatory scrutiny to ensure patient safety.

Manufacturers must carefully assess these factors and classify their devices accordingly to ensure compliance with the appropriate regulatory requirements.

The Importance of FDA Medical Device Classes

Medical device classifications play a vital role in safeguarding patient health and ensuring the effectiveness of healthcare technologies. Medical device classification ensures that medical devices are appropriately regulated based on their intended use and potential risks.

The classification process helps determine the level of regulatory control required for each class of medical device. It helps in establishing the appropriate pre-market review requirements, post-market surveillance, and quality system requirements. Classification also assists with the establishment of performance standards and labeling requirements for medical devices.

For manufacturers, understanding medical device classifications is crucial for navigating the regulatory landscape. It allows them to assess the level of scrutiny and testing required for their devices, ensuring that they meet the necessary safety and performance standards. Failure to comply with these regulations can lead to severe consequences, including product recalls, legal liabilities, and damage to a company's reputation.

FDA Medical Device Classification System

The FDA, through the CDRH, is responsible for regulating medical devices in the US. The FDA has established a three-tiered classification system based on the perceived risk associated with the device, with Class I representing the lowest risk and Class III the highest.

Class I Medical Devices

Class I medical devices are considered to have the lowest risk and the simplest design. There are approximately 780 devices in this classification. These devices are typically non-invasive and pose minimal harm to patients if used as intended. Examples of Class I medical devices include bandages, examination gloves, and simple surgical instruments like forceps and scissors.

While Class I devices are subject to the least regulatory control, they still need to meet certain quality and safety standards. These devices are subject to general controls, such as Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMPs)  and proper labeling requirements. Manufacturers of Class I devices are required to register their establishments and list their devices with the FDA. They must also comply with post-market surveillance requirements and report any adverse events associated with their devices.

Class II Medical Devices

Class II medical devices pose a moderate risk to patients and are more complex in design compared to Class I devices. There are approximately 800 devices in this classification. These devices are often non-invasive but may have a higher degree of invasiveness compared to Class I devices. Examples of Class II medical devices include powered wheelchairs, infusion pumps, and diagnostic imaging equipment.

Class II devices are subject to more rigorous controls compared to Class I devices due to their increased risk level. Manufacturers of Class II devices are required to follow general controls as well as special controls. Special controls may include performance standards, post-market surveillance, and pre-market notification (510(k)) submissions to demonstrate substantial equivalence to a legally marketed device. 510(k) clearance is required before these devices can be marketed in the United States.

Class III Medical Devices

Class III medical devices are considered to have the highest risk and the most complex design. There are approximately 120 devices in this classification. These devices are often invasive, typically life-sustaining or life-supporting, and could pose a significant risk to patients if not properly designed, manufactured, and used. Examples of Class III medical devices include implantable pacemakers, artificial heart valves, and neurosurgical devices.

Due to their high-risk nature, Class III devices undergo the most stringent regulatory scrutiny. Manufacturers of Class III devices are required to submit comprehensive pre-market approval applications to the FDA. These devices are subject to extensive clinical testing data demonstrating the safety and effectiveness of the device.

How to Classify a Medical Device 

The CDRH is tasked with regulating medical devices and radiation-emitting electronic products sold in the US. The CDRH closely regulates companies that manufacture, repackage, re-label/label, and import medical devices and radiation-emitting electronic products to ensure safety and effectiveness. An important factor in regulating devices is requiring appropriate classification of each device.

Each class of medical devices has its own set of regulatory requirements which vary based on the potential risks associated with the device and the level of regulatory control required. Understanding these requirements is crucial for ensuring compliance and minimizing the time and cost associated with bringing innovative products safely to market.

Defining Product Intended Use and Indications for Use

First, manufacturers must ensure their product meets the CDRH’s definition of medical device. Determination of a medical device is defined by its intended use and indications for use.

The intended use refers to the general purpose or function of the device. Indications for use describe the specific disease, condition, or population the device is intended to diagnose, treat, prevent, or mitigate. These two concepts are closely intertwined and play a crucial role in the device's regulatory pathway.

Navigating the FDA Device Classification System

To determine the appropriate FDA classification for a medical device, manufacturers must identify the relevant regulation and product code. This can be accomplished by searching the FDA's Product Classification Database or by reviewing the list of classified devices within the applicable medical specialty panel in the CFR Title 21.

Once the appropriate product classification has been identified, the relevant regulation is provided which details important information for understanding the device's classification and the associated regulatory requirements. For example, a device classified as Class II will typically require a 510(k) premarket notification, while a Class III device will generally necessitate a Premarket Approval (PMA) application.

FDA Device Classification Assistance

Manufacturers should work with the FDA to ensure appropriate device classification. FDA offers resources to support medical device manufacturers in this process.


The CDRH offers informal assistance through the Division of Industry and Consumer Education (DICE). The DICE maintains a device advice resource. Manufacturers can consult with these informal resources to answer questions and obtain guidance.

When a more formal determination is required, manufacturers can submit a 513(g) request. Section 513(g) of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics act allows device manufacturers to submit a written request to the FDA regarding proper device classification. Within 60 days, the FDA issues a written reply including how the device would be classified, applicable regulations, and the steps in the approval process. The FDA offers detailed guidance for submitting this request.


In conclusion, understanding FDA medical device classes is essential for manufacturers bringing new medical devices to market. The classification system determines the level of regulatory control required based on the potential risks associated with the device. From Class I to Class III, each class has its own set of requirements and controls.

Accurately classifying medical devices is a critical step in the commercialization process, as misclassification can result in unnecessary delays and costly investments.

By understanding medical device classes, manufacturers can make informed decisions about their medical devices and maintain compliance with FDA regulations.

In addition to FDA regulations, manufactures must also comply with state medical device regulations. Many state Boards of Pharmacy regulate the manufacturing, distribution and sale of medical devices into their states.

Complete Compliance Solutions assists medical device manufacturers and distributors with securing state-level medical device licenses.  By partnering with us, manufacturers and distributors can understand their state medical device regulatory obligations.

Author: Maureen May

Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal or regulatory advice.


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