Rethinking certification

As stakeholders in payer, provider, and government communities debate the optimal timing of ICD10, Meaningful Use Stage 2, ACA, and HIPAA Omnibus rule deadlines, it's becoming increasingly clear that many hospitals which attested in 2011 and 2012 will not have their 2014 edition certified software installed, training completed, and workflow re-engineered in time for the Stage 2 attestation deadlines.

Now that we have experience with two stages of meaningful use, it's also clear that a three year cycle is needed to ensure safe, high value, well adopted, introduction of new IT functionality.

Part of the problem, as I've discussed previously, is that the certification criteria are overly burdensome and in many circumstances disconnected from the attestation criteria, requiring very prescriptive features that go beyond the intent of Policy Committee and Standards Committee.

How did this happen? When meaningful use Stage 2 regulations were being written, ONC entered a "quiet period" in which smart people wrote regulatory language and certification scripts isolated from the rest of the world to ensure there was no bias introduced. This was a "waterfall methodology" in which elaborate specifications and a long planning process was followed by an isolated development process resulting in a single huge deliverable with little opportunity to validate the result, pilot the components, or revise/improve the product after the fact. The flaws in the Stage 2 certification scripts are an artifact of the regulatory process itself.

Healthcare.gov taught us that waterfall approaches are risky. A better approach would be to create certification scripts using an "agile methodology." Standards and scripts to test them could be developed outside the regulatory process, with iterative stakeholder feedback, testing of components, and rapid cycle improvement. The regulatory process could point to the standards which would have accompanying implementation guides and test scripts. There would be no "quiet period" or isolation in the development of certification scripts. Such an approach would significantly reduce future certification burdens.

In addition to this, I recommend an even more radical redesign of certification.

We should maintain attestation as a demonstration of performance, but limit certification to rigorous standards adoption and interoperability, not prescriptive functionality.

What do I mean?

The Meaningful Use Workgroup believes decision support should be expanded in the future. I agree. Although they are now looking at outcomes that demonstrate the use of decision support, their initial work included recommendations for very prescriptive decision support certification criteria including:

  • Ability to track CDS triggers
  • Ability to flag preference-sensitive conditions and provide decision support materials for patients
  • Check for a maximum dose /weight based calculation
  • Use of structured SIG standards
  • Consume external CDS interventions
  • Use info in systems to support maintenance of lists

In effect, this tells vendors how to enhance clinical decision support features.

Let me use analogy.

Suppose that the government decided USB thumb drives are a good thing. Not only would they specify a USB 3.0 standard, they would require it is black, rectangular, and weighs 2 ounces. Such prescriptive requirements would stifle innovation since today's USB drives might be in the shape of a key or even mimic a sushi roll.

When evaluating the success of the US healthcare IT program, Congress tends to focus on interoperability -- why are there gaps in DOD/VA data sharing or few seamless transitions of care among inpatient and outpatient facilities?

If certification focused entirely on interoperability, EHRs would be a bit more like USB drives. They might be big or small, black or red, key shaped or sushi shaped. However, they'll work with any device you plug them into.

I've spoken with many EHR vendors (to remain unnamed) and all have told me that they created software that will never be used by any clinician but was necessary to check the boxes of certification scripts that make no sense in real world workflows.

If certification required rigorous demonstration of outbound and inbound interoperability with no optionality in the standards (use this standard OR that standard), Congress will be happy, patients will be happy, and vendors will be happy.

Once we come up for air after ICD10, MU2, ACA, and HIPAA, I'll be watching any MU3 planning very closely to ensure we do not again make the same mistakes with certification scripts that are untested or too prescriptive. Let's all focus on universal adoption of enhanced interoperability as a measure of success.