The information age has arrived. It is therefore essential to define appropriate conduct and to characterize how we manage expectations in this new operational landscape of our environment. The increasing need to effectively use electronic data systems for efficiency and control is inevitable, and competitive advantage will be directly related to and dependent upon appropriate responses to the new stimuli. Only those who adapt effectively will evolve and prosper. As we journey into the future, we must exercise care that we think our way into a new way of acting rather than acting our way into a new way of thinking.
The watershed 1997 "Electronic Records; Electronic Signatures" rule (ERES), 21 CFR Part 11, is now both gatekeeper and enabler of an increasingly electronic landscape (1). The rule stipulates stringent controls concerning the use of electronic records and signatures, and more importantly, it defines the requirements acceptable to FDA for capture, storage, retrieval, maintenance, and data security. This article focuses on the importance of auditing and validating electronic systems as a consequence of the rule. It frames the regulatory risk, integrates the ERES component, identifies new skills that will be required in the information age, and provides an audit process model that helps mitigate the liability exposure of management.
The Regulatory EnvironmentFDA is the nation's oldest consumer protection agency, overseeing more than 100,000 companies producing products valued in excess of one trillion dollars. Regulations mandating accountability and traceability throughout drug development, manufacturing, and distribution are the foundation of FDA's enforcement power. In the pharmaceutical sector, regulatory risks affect the organization directly and include FDA 483s, warning letters, and consent decrees. These actions can result in nonapprovals of pending new drug submissions, delayed approvals of new products, and/or loss of government contracts. Legal risks include injunction from manufacture, search of premises, seizure of products and records, and prosecution — corporate or individual, civil or criminal. Regulatory and legal penalties include fines (individual and corporate), sanctions, and imprisonment. A business can lose market share and/or its good name while bearing the cost of litigation or remediation. Particularly severe penalties could ultimately put an organization out of business. Individuals can lose even more.The body of regulations is dynamic and changes as products and technologies evolve. Different regulations address different stages of the product life cycle, from good laboratory practices (GLP) through discovery and preclinical development, good clinical practices (GCP) through clinical trials, and finally good manufacturing practices (GMP) through clinical drug substance and drug product manufacture and postapproval manufacturing and distribution. It might appear to be easy to nestle isolated regulations into the functional silos defined by the development process, but real integrated risk assessment begs cross-functional interpretation; that is, GxP, where GLP 1 GCP 1 GMP 5 GxP. There are many "interpreters" of the regulations in industry and in government, but no quantifiable models exist, and interpretation is usually an amalgamation of knowledge, experience, and often serendipitous timing.
FDA enforcement is predicated on human efforts and consequently follows discernible patterns. Even though regulations and guidance documents provide the framework for quality systems, many areas still require judgment. Inspectors identify and target specific areas of primary interest (such as validation, adverse event reporting, and equipment cleaning). They then focus on unearthing examples of those concerns and obtaining evidence. Adverse findings can negatively affect industry reputation, profits, and shareholder confidence.
The RuleThe ERES rule (printed in BioPharm’s November 2000 supplement, pp. 62–64) is divided into three sections: Subpart A, General Provisions; Subpart B, Electronic Records; and Subpart C, Electronic Signatures. It is important from the onset that you clearly understand the distinction between records and signatures.
Records. Records are "any combination of text, graphics, data, audio, pictorial, or other information representation in digital form that is created, modified, maintained, archived, retrieved, or distributed by a computer system." Nonconformance with the electronic record rule means you are in nonconformance with the original record-keeping requirement of the predicate regulations.
Signatures. Under the regulation, signatures can appear in three manifestations — handwritten, digital, and electronic — defined in 21 CFR 11.3 as follows. A handwritten signature is "the scripted name or legal mark of an individual handwritten by that individual and executed or adopted with the present intention to authenticate a writing in a permanent form." That scripted name or legal mark can be applied to devices other than paper. A digital signature is "an electronic signature based upon cryptographic methods of originator authentication, computed by using a set of rules and a set of parameters such that the identity of the signer and the integrity of the data can be verified." An electronic signature is "a computer data compilation of any symbol or series of symbols executed, adopted, or authorized by an individual to be the legally binding equivalent of the individual’s signature."
Electronic records and signatures can be used in accordance with Part 11 unless paper records are specifically required by a particular regulation. In surprisingly sweeping language, the agency applies those criteria to all records in electronic form under any requirement within any FDA regulation. As with computerized process controls elsewhere, the "record/signature" computer system (hardware and software), controls, and relevant documentation must be available for review during FDA inspections. The rule identifies two environments: In closed systems, access is controlled by people who are responsible for the content of electronic records on the system. In open systems, access is not controlled by persons who are responsible for the content of electronic records that are on the system. The applicable controls for each environment differ in direct relation to the presumed layer of security.
Closed systems require specific procedures and controls to ensure authenticity, integrity, and confidentiality while preventing the signatory from repudiating the signature. The rule requires human readability and retrievability. The agency has clearly stated its intent to inspect, review, and copy records. Procedures should ensure that personnel are qualified, that records are maintained accurately and completely, that access to the system is limited to authorized persons, and that records are protected throughout the retention period. The record must have audit trails that are secure, operator independent, computer-generated, and time-and-date stamped. Audit trails should include the creation, modification, and deletion of records without overwriting or obscuring previous information. Periodic performance of operating system checks, authority checks, and device checks to ensure system, record, and data integrity are mandatory. Controls on system documentation should include distribution, access, use, revision, and change control. They must be validated to ensure accuracy, reliability, and consistency. Ultimately, your procedures and controls must hold personnel accountable for their actions and deter record falsification.
Open systems need all the controls required for closed systems but contain additional measures (such as document encryption and digital signal standards) to ensure authenticity, integrity, and confidentiality. Electronic records that are signed must adhere to the controls listed for them and must also include the printed name of the signer, the date and time of the signature, and the purpose of the signature (such as review or approval). The signatures and records must be human readable by display or printout.
Electronic signatures and handwritten signatures must also be linked to ensure that signatures cannot be excised, copied, transferred, or falsified. The identity of individuals must be verified, and signatures must be unique to an individual and not reassignable. Additionally, organizations that intend to use electronic signature systems must certify to FDA their intent to do so before or at the time they begin using the system. "Affidavits of Certification" must be submitted in paper form and attest that signatures are legally binding. A field notice directs investigators to check the Office of Regulatory Affairs (ORA) intranet site to determine whether an electronic signature certification has been filed before arriving at an inspection site (2).
Nonbiometric signatures must contain at least two different identification components (such as user ID and password). Biometric signatures verify an individual's identity based on measurement of the individual's physical feature(s) or repeatable action(s) in which those features and/or actions are both unique to that individual and measurable. Applications for which a single sign-on accesses multiple tasks should use all identification components at first, with partial identification for each task thereafter. Applications for which multiple sign-ons are used without unrestricted access require all identification components to be used each time. Only the owner should use nonbiometric signatures, and the organization should ensure that use by other individuals is precluded and does not occur without the collaboration of at least two or more individuals. Biometric signatures need only ensure use by the owner. Identification codes and passwords must be procedurally administered.
Systems using electronic signatures must have controls to ensure their security and integrity. Controls should include assuring that no two individuals have the same combination of identification code and password; periodic checks, recalls, or revisions of identification code and password; loss management and replacement procedures; testing of devices (tokens or cards) that produce or maintain identification codes or passwords to ensure proper function and unaltered state; safeguards against unauthorized use; and urgent and immediate reporting of unauthorized use attempts to the security unit and/or management.
Compliance with the ERES rule focuses on three fundamental elements: a computer generated audit trail with local date/time stamps of user entries and actions that create, modify, or delete a record; security practices that limit access to authorized users, hold users accountable to written policies, and that differentiate between open and closed systems; and modalities to ensure retention, retrievability, and reproducibility so that electronic records are archived in electronic form on durable media with accurate transcriptions or complete copies of the data and metadata.
The Operational LandscapeIn the pharmaceutical industry, the requirement to conduct internal quality assurance audits is specifically promulgated in U.S. regulations (3).
The enactment of ERES and the increasing regulatory preference for QA systems adds further complexity to the management of computer and documentation systems. FDA believes that the risks of falsification, misinterpretation, and unauthorized change (without leaving evidence) are higher with electronic records than with paper records, and that, therefore, specific controls are required. Requirements are strict for organizations choosing to use electronic modalities, but establish only the minimum requirements for logical, procedural, and physical controls surrounding the use of computers. Clearly, the regulators have certain expectations, and the onus is on industry to create and establish appropriate controls for maintaining record and signature integrity that will satisfy those expectations.
FD&C compliance. Personal responsibility is a hallmark of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FD&C) act, which reflects a core value of FDA compliance and enforcement policy. Legal proceedings almost invariably identify individuals as the defendants under the theory that they actively participate in the unlawful conduct, allow it to happen by passively tolerating violations, or fail to take steps to learn that violations are occurring. Company executives often react with surprise and sometimes anger at being personally associated with the wrongdoing that brought their organization to court, believing that it was a corporate problem only that should not affect them directly. FDA has defended that policy three times in the Supreme Court and has prevailed each time. Executives have been fined, disbarred, and even sentenced to time in prison for their misdeeds.