Using digital signatures: What took so long?

NCI program could set a template for using a technology whose time has come

The use of digital certificates for signing electronic documents is a technology whose time has come, said Peter Alterman, senior adviser for strategic initiatives at the National Institutes of Health.

“If someone were to ask my advice on implementing it, I would say, ‘What took you so long?’ ” Alterman said. “It’s not resource-intensive, and the payoff is substantial.”

Alterman gained his experience with the process through a pilot program with Bristol-Myers Squibb at the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Therapy Evaluation Program. The test uses existing technology, including the government’s Personal Identity Verification card and identity trust bridges established by the government and biopharmaceutical industry, to enable the use of digital signatures.

Related story:

NIH and drug industry build a bridge to paperless processes

“I’m going to encourage NCI to take the pilot into full production,” Alterman said. In addition to saving time and money, “this is a remarkably green initiative” that saves reams of paper not needed for written signatures.

The technology needed to implement digital signatures is available and mature, he said. The challenge to such a program is convincing leadership to make the change from file cabinets full of documents with ink-on-paper signatures to databases that contain digital signatures.

“You have to have management buy-in and support,” he said. By starting small and picking the low-hanging fruit, health care leaders can start the process of change.

Alterman said he expects the NCI cancer program to become the poster child for future digital signature initiatives and predicted that paperless processes would be the normal operating mode for agencies within 10 years.

He cautions that he also predicted in a 1976 essay that fusion reactors would become our primary energy source by the year 2000. That has not worked out so well. But he said he has a really good feeling about digital signatures.


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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