Published: July 15, 2021
By Avis D. Bullard, MS, CSSBB (ASQ), and William M. Ellis, MS, RPh, Board of Pharmacy Specialties
After having nine certification programs undergo National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) accreditation over the past decade, a natural progression for the Board of Pharmacy Specialties (BPS) was to continue to pursue further validation of their certification activities and related programs.
Obtaining accreditation to the ISO/IEC 17024 Standard was an outgrowth of the organization’s focus on quality and was identified by the BPS Board of Directors as being a key strategic initiative. BPS sought dual accreditation under the ISO/IEC 17024 Standard in addition to NCCA accreditation to demonstrate that its certification programs can meet internationally recognized standards. This was important, as the accreditation provides a global benchmark for personnel certification bodies to operate consistently, comparably and reliably worldwide. International accreditation supports the increasing technological and global specialization of skills and personnel.
ISO/IEC 17024 Background Information
Standardization and Accreditation Organizations 101
International Organization for Standardization (ISO): An independent, non-governmental, international organization that develops voluntary, consensus-based, market relevant, international standards that support innovation and provide solutions to global challenges.i
International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC): A global not-for-profit organization focused on infrastructure and international trade in electrical and electronic goods.ii
International Accreditation Service (IAS): A leading accreditation body in the U.S. that is recognized by the International Accreditation Forum (IAF) and Asia Pacific Accreditation Cooperation.iii
International Accreditation Forum (IAF): The world association of conformity assessment accreditation bodies.iv
National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA): Originally formed in cooperation with the U.S. federal government to develop standards of excellence for health care, the NCCA’s
Standards for the Accreditation of Certification Programs were the first standards developed by the credentialing industry for professional certification programs and now encompass multiple industries.v
ISO/IEC 17024 is a standard of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Specifically, the ISO/IEC 17024 sets the requirements and the framework, at a global level, for the operation of personnel certification bodies. The International Accreditation Service (IAS) is a multilateral recognition agreement (MLA) signatory to the three primary international organizations that form a unified system for evaluating and recognizing competent accreditation bodies worldwide. IAS accredits personnel certification bodies to ISO/IEC Standard 17024.
It should be noted that accreditation in the certification industry is largely voluntary and can be pursued under either the NCCA or ISO/IEC 17024 standards if a certifying body elects to do so.
The Process Road to Dual Accreditation
BPS believes that accreditation is an essential benchmark of quality and demonstrates a commitment to excellence in administering a professional certification program. Programs that currently hold NCCA accreditation or are pursuing it may also consider dual accreditation to ISO/IEC 17024 through an I.C.E. partnership with IAS. Those seeking this dual accreditation can take advantage of the application process created from the I.C.E./IAS partnership using the online application portal.
The online accreditation application provides multiple advantages for applicants, such as:
- Allowing for the transfer of responses between NCCA and ISO 17024 accreditation applications because there is some overlap in the requirements for both standards,
- Reducing duplication when completing the accreditation application for each standard,
- Providing automated notifications to applicants of any responses or questions from assessors when reviewing the accreditation applications and
- Allowing an organization to synchronize its accreditation renewal cycles for both standards if desired.
While the overlap between the NCCA and ISO/IEC 17024 standards creates multiple efficiencies for our organization, the dual accreditation also provided a different set of eyes and a valuable outside perspective on our work. IAS conducts an on-site accreditation visit; we thought this would be informative, but then we found ourselves pursuing dual accreditation during a pandemic.
Once BPS’s submitted application was reviewed and considered to meet ISO/IEC 17024 requirements, the IAS lead assessor contacted BPS to schedule an on-site assessment to verify compliance by conducting staff interviews.
After consultation with the IAS team, a virtual on-site assessment was conducted in August 2020 in response to the ongoing access restrictions to BPS offices due to the pandemic. While much of the assessment used traditional virtual meeting technology to meet with staff, both IAS and BPS had to think creatively to conduct a physical inspection of the office space. A local staff member volunteered to go into the office and move through the space using a webcam. The staff member was sufficiently familiar with the layout and building to answer auditor questions and had access to locked spaces and secure areas.
Impact on BPS Process Quality
Applying for dual accreditation highlighted some areas that BPS could improve upon and helped the organization not only meet the requirements of both standards but also improve operational processes. For instance, BPS’s initial certification application or recertification process requires that a candidate demonstrate experience in their practice area. In preparing for the accreditation assessment, BPS found that we could strengthen documentation to verify that applicants conform to this requirement. From this discovery, BPS developed an employer verification form, signed by both the applicant and employer, attesting that practice hours were achieved. BPS now has supporting documentation assuring that the eligibility criteria component for practice experience has been met.
A requirement of both standards is to demonstrate that volunteers are representative of the population seeking certification. To meet the requirement, BPS staff developed a matrix to provide a snapshot of the key demographics of volunteers for the specified service period. Examples of the demographics include information such as practice setting and experience, geographic location, experience with BPS, years in the industry, participation in seminars and conferences, etc. The matrix also facilitates succession planning when the service period ends.
These quality improvements to the BPS certification activities were an outcome of complying with both the NCCA standards and IAS accreditation to ISO/IEC 17024, and have contributed to the quality of the BPS certification activities through the establishment of standardized and efficient processes. BPS has built a quality management system consistent with the foundational requirements of documenting processes, controlling records of information and engaging management to support quality improvements based on established performance metrics.
BPS is firmly committed to the NCCA and ISO/IEC 17024 dual accreditation program and acknowledges its ongoing value to the public, board-certified pharmacists and other stakeholders. BPS now holds dual accreditation by NCCA and IAS to ISO/IEC 17024 for organizations that offer personnel certification, and as a result has a process to continue to monitor and improve the quality of its certification activities by maintaining accreditation.
i International Organization for Standardization; https://www.iso.org/about-us.html
ii International Organization for Standardization; https://www.iec.ch/what-we-do
iii International Accreditation Service; https://www.iasonline.org/about-ias/
iv International Accreditation Forum (IAF); https://www.iaf.nu//articles/About/2
v National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA); https://www.credentialingexcellence.org/Accreditation/Earn-Accreditation/NCC