Agile acceptance test-driven development of clinical decision support advisories: Feasibility of using open source software

Mujeeb A. Basit, Krystal L. Baldwin, Vaishnavi Kannan, Emily L. Flahaven, Cassandra J. Parks, Jason M. Ott, Duwayne L. Willett

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Background: Moving to electronic health records (EHRs) confers substantial benefits but risks unintended consequences. Modern EHRs consist of complex software code with extensive local configurability options, which can introduce defects. Defects in clinical decision support (CDS) tools are surprisingly common. Feasible approaches to prevent and detect defects in EHR configuration, including CDS tools, are needed. In complex software systems, use of test-driven development and automated regression testing promotes reliability. Test-driven development encourages modular, testable design and expanding regression test coverage. Automated regression test suites improve software quality, providing a “safety net” for future software modifications. Each automated acceptance test serves multiple purposes, as requirements (prior to build), acceptance testing (on completion of build), regression testing (once live), and “living” design documentation. Rapid-cycle development or “agile” methods are being successfully applied to CDS development. The agile practice of automated test-driven development is not widely adopted, perhaps because most EHR software code is vendor-developed. However, key CDS advisory configuration design decisions and rules stored in the EHR may prove amenable to automated testing as “executable requirements.” Objective: We aimed to establish feasibility of acceptance test-driven development of clinical decision support advisories in a commonly used EHR, using an open source automated acceptance testing framework (FitNesse). Methods: Acceptance tests were initially constructed as spreadsheet tables to facilitate clinical review. Each table specified one aspect of the CDS advisory's expected behavior. Table contents were then imported into a test suite in FitNesse, which queried the EHR database to automate testing. Tests and corresponding CDS configuration were migrated together from the development environment to production, with tests becoming part of the production regression test suite. Results: We used test-driven development to construct a new CDS tool advising Emergency Department nurses to perform a swallowing assessment prior to administering oral medication to a patient with suspected stroke. Test tables specified desired behavior for (1) applicable clinical settings, (2) triggering action, (3) rule logic, (4) user interface, and (5) system actions in response to user input. Automated test suite results for the “executable requirements” are shown prior to building the CDS alert, during build, and after successful build. Conclusions: Automated acceptance test-driven development and continuous regression testing of CDS configuration in a commercial EHR proves feasible with open source software. Automated test-driven development offers one potential contribution to achieving high-reliability EHR configuration. Vetting acceptance tests with clinicians elicits their input on crucial configuration details early during initial CDS design and iteratively during rapid-cycle optimization.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere23
JournalJMIR Medical Informatics
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2018


  • Agile methods
  • Clinical decision support systems
  • Electronic health records
  • Software validation
  • Software verification
  • Test driven development

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Informatics
  • Health Information Management


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