Fully incorporating modern information technology into the healthcare system promises many benefits, including better quality care, less paperwork and fewer medical errors while reducing unnecessary costs. In any such critical application, however, it's important to ensure that the new technology behaves as expected. To meet this need in health information technology, a broad array of public and private stakeholders have been working with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). NIST has released the first of four installments of a new health IT test method and related software.
Starting in 2011, the federal government will provide extra Medicare and Medicaid payments to physicians' offices that implement health IT systems conforming to specific technical standards and put to "meaningful use", performing specifically defined functions. Late last year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) identified the required standards and provided a concrete definition of "meaningful use." To help physicians' offices evaluate possible health IT systems against these requirements, the HHS's Office of the National Coordinator (ONC) has established a national health IT certification program.
As mandated by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), NIST and HHS/ONC are working to develop a suite of software tools to support the health IT testing infrastructure. Input (by email to firstname.lastname@example.org) on these tools is welcomed from all stakeholders, including the general public, health IT system vendors, standards organizations, certification bodies and system implementers. The tools are intended to help vendors test their health IT products and ensure basic functionality, such as the calculation of body mass index or proper formatting of common electronic health records in XML (eXtensible Markup Language).
The health IT testing infrastructure does not create any new standards, only the tools necessary to test for compliance with existing standards that HHS announced late last year. Testing laboratories will use these tools in the testing component of the certification programs established by ONC. ONC has stated its intention to use NIST's National Voluntary Laboratory Accreditation Program (NVLAP) to perform the accreditation of testing laboratories.
A new Health IT Standards and Testing Web site has been established (http://healthcare.nist.gov/) to provide more information on the program and the testing infrastructure suite.