The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) published a set of approved procedures used to test information-technology systems that work with electronic health records (EHRs), with an emphasis on building out a nationwide health information network for better patient care. The report was released earlier this year in draft form, and now the finalized testing procedures are available for use, said Bettijoyce Lide, program coordinator and senior advisor for NIST’s health IT section.

“The goal is for most Americans to have electronic health records and let them be interoperable over a nationwide, health information network,” Lide said. “The overarching principal is to have EHR available anywhere, anytime.”

The program was paid for through a $20 million allocation fund awarded by the 2010 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to NIST’s health IT program. Lide said the funding let NIST brainstorm with private industry and other government agencies to develop the consensus-based standards and testing procedures that meet the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the National Coordinator (HHS/ONC) final rule, which articulated standards, criteria and implementation guidelines required for EHR systems and modules.

The set of 45 approved test procedures evaluate components of electronic health records such as their encryption, how they plot and display growth charts, and how they control access to information. Lide said the ONC-approved test procedures help ensure that electronic health records function properly and work interchangeably across systems developed by different vendors. However, since it’s only Stage 1 testing, only a minimal focus was placed on information sharing, she said.

“It’s typically black-box testing,” Lide said. “So a lot of our procedures look at the functionality of the product and then the tester uses test data to see if the system does what it is supposed to do. Those test procedures then will be used by independent, third-party testing organizations that are authorized by HHS/ONC.”

The tests come at a time when the federal government is offering incentives for implementing EHR systems, including providing extra Medicare and Medicaid payments to healthcare providers who install them. With federal support and industry innovation, Lide believes health IT will continue to grow in both functionality and interoperability.

“The criteria represent the floor, not the ceiling of where electronic health records can go and in the level of information sharing,” she said.