FDA Risk Classification for Software as a Medical Device (SaMD)

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) plays a critical role in the regulation of medical devices within the United States, ensuring that they meet safety and efficacy standards before reaching the market. This encompasses a wide range of products, from traditional medical devices to innovative Software as a Medical Device (SaMD). Understanding the FDA’s risk-based classification system and the corresponding regulatory requirements is essential for manufacturers and healthcare providers. This comprehensive article takes you by the hand and will guide you through the classification system, with a particular focus on SaMD, elucidating the criteria for classification and offering real-world examples.

FDA’s Risk-Based Classification System for Medical Devices

Medical devices are sorted into three classes based on the risk they pose to patients and users, which determines the level of regulatory scrutiny required. The classes are based on the level of control necessary to assure the safety and effectiveness of the device. These classes are:

  • Class I (Low Risk): Devices in this category pose the lowest risk to the patient and/or user. Most Class I devices are exempt from premarket notification requirements. Examples include non-sterile, manual surgical instruments and elastic bandages.
  • Class II (Moderate Risk): Devices that are higher risk than Class I and require greater regulatory controls to provide reasonable assurance of the device’s safety and effectiveness. Class II devices usually require premarket notification (510(k)). Examples include powered wheelchairs and some pregnancy test kits.
  • Class III (High Risk): Devices that support or sustain human life, are of substantial importance in preventing impairment of human health, or present a potential, unreasonable risk of illness or injury. These devices require premarket approval (PMA), demonstrating safety and effectiveness. Examples include implantable pacemakers and breast implants.

Classification and Regulatory Requirements for Software as a Medical Device (SaMD)

SaMD is defined as software intended for one or more medical purposes without being part of a hardware medical device. The FDA classifies SaMD based on the level of risk associated with its intended use.

Criteria for SaMD Classification

The classification hinges on:

  • The significance of the information provided by the SaMD to healthcare decisions.
  • The healthcare situation or condition.
  • The state of the healthcare situation or condition.

Class I Devices: Low Risk

Regulatory Requirements:

  • Establishment Registration and Device Listing: Manufacturers must register their establishments and list their devices with the FDA.
  • Quality System Regulation (QSR): Must comply with manufacturing standards that cover the methods and documentation of the design, manufacturing, and distribution processes.
  • Labeling Requirements: Devices must have proper labeling that includes adequate directions for use and warnings.
  • Medical Device Reporting (MDR): Adverse events that could lead to death or serious injury must be reported to the FDA.
  • Example: A fitness app that tracks steps and provides general health tips, posing a low risk. These might need to comply with general controls but are often exempt from premarket notification.

Class II Devices: Moderate Risk

Regulatory Requirements:

  • 510(k) Premarket Notification: A submission to the FDA that demonstrates the device is as safe and effective, that is, substantially equivalent, to a legally marketed device.
  • Special Controls: May include special labeling requirements, mandatory performance standards, and post-market surveillance.
  • General Controls: Including establishment registration, device listing, quality regulation, etc., are also applicable.
  • Example: A mobile app that calculates insulin doses for diabetics, considered a moderate risk. It requires 510(k) clearance, showing it is substantially equivalent to a legally marketed device, and adherence to special controls.

Class III Devices: High Risk

Regulatory Requirements:

  • Premarket Approval (PMA): The most stringent type of device marketing application required by the FDA. It requires proof of the safety and effectiveness of the device for its intended use.
  • Clinical Trials: Almost all Class III devices need clinical trial evidence to support their PMA applications.
  • General Controls and Special Controls: Compliance with all general controls and applicable special controls.
  • Example: An AI-driven diagnostic tool analyzing medical imaging to detect early stages of cancer. Due to the critical nature of its use, it undergoes the PMA process, including clinical trials to prove safety and efficacy.


The FDA’s risk classification system for medical devices, including software as a medical device, ensures that products meet necessary safety and effectiveness standards before market entry. This classification not only influences the regulatory pathway a device must follow but also underscores the importance of comprehensive testing and documentation. As the medical device landscape evolves, particularly with the growth of SaMD, understanding these classifications and regulatory requirements remains crucial for manufacturers and healthcare providers alike.

On a slighty different note: You want to get your medical software certified under MDR but don’t know where to start? No worries! That’s why we built the Wizard. It’s a self-guided video course which helps you create your documentation yourself. No prior knowledge required. You should check it out.

Or, if you’re looking for the most awesome (in our opinion) eQMS software to manage your documentation, look no further. We’ve built Formwork, and it even has a free version!

If you’re looking for human help, did you know that we also provide consulting? We’re a small company, so we can’t take on everyone – but maybe we have time for your project? We guide startups from start to finish in their medical device compliance.

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