Solution: improved specifications

The quality of our IT systems for health-care is pretty darn poor, and I think most people agree on that. There have been calls for oversight and certification of applications to lessen the risk of failures and errors. In Europe there is a drive to have health-care IT solutions go through a CE process, which more or less contains a lot of documentation requirements and change control. So by doing this, the CE process certifies a part of the actual process to produce the applications. But I dare claim this isn’t very useful.

If you want to get vendors to produce better code with less bugs, there is only one thing you can do to achieve that: inspect the code directly or indirectly. Everything else is too complicated and ineffective. The only thing the CE process will achieve is more bureaucracy, more paper, slower and more laborious updates, fewer timely fixes, and higher costs. What it also will achieve, and this may be very intentional, is that only large vendors with massive overhead staff can satisfy the CE requirements, killing all smaller vendors in the process.

But back to the problem we wanted to solve, namely code quality. What should be done, at least theoretically, is actual approval of the code in the applications. The problem here is that very few people are actually qualified to judge code quality correctly, and it’s very hard to define on paper what good code should look like. So as things stand today, we are not in a position where we can mandate a certain level of code quality directly, leaving us no other choice than doing it indirectly.

I think most experienced software developers agree that the public specifications and public APIs of a product very accurately reflect the inner quality of the code. There is no reason in theory why this needs to be the case, but in practice it always is. I’ve never seen an exception to this rule. Even stronger, I can assert that a product that has no public specifications or no public API is also guaranteed to be of poor quality. Again, I’ve never seen an exception to this rule.

So instead of checking paperbased processes as CE does, let’s approve the specifications and APIs. Let the vendors subject these to approval by a public board of experts. If the specs make sense and the APIs are clean and orthogonal and seem to serve the purpose the specs describe, then it’s an easy thing to test if the product adheres to the specs and the APIs. If it does, it’s approved, and we don’t need to see the original source code at all.

There is no guarantee that you’ll catch all bad code this way, but it’s much more likely than if you use CE to do it. It also has the nice side effect of forcing all players to actually open up specs and APIs, else there’s no approval.

One thing I can tell you off the bat: the Swedish NPÖ (National Patient Summary) system would flunk such an inspection so hard. That API is the horror of horrors. Or to put it another way: if any approval process would be able to let the NPÖ pass, it’s a worthless approval process. Hmmm…. maybe we can use NPÖ as an approval process approval test? No approval process should be accepted for general use unless it totally flunked NPÖ. Sounds fine to me.

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