21 CFR Part 11 for regulatory affairs teams

Wendy Levine
March 2, 2022
21 CFR Part 11 for regulatory affairs teams

What is 21 CFR Part 11?  

21 CFR Part 11 refers to the federal regulation that address electronic records and electronic signatures associated with FDA requirements. This single, relatively small, part of the Code of Federal Regulations is extremely significant for companies with FDA-regulated products because it impacts every document signature, electronic file, and FDA submission. Codified in 1997, interpretations of this FDA-issued regulation continue to be debated and re-evaluated as the technology supporting electronic records and signatures changes. In this article, we’ll discuss the regulation and generally accepted interpretations.

Note that discussions and statements in this document are our observations only and should not be taken as fact. You can refer directly to the regulation here.

Part 11: General Provisions

The General Provisions section of 21CFR11 addresses the scope of the regulation, when and how it should be implemented, and defines some of the key terms used. It states that the purpose of Part 11 is to define the criteria under which electronic records, electronic signatures, and handwritten signatures attached to electronic records are equivalent to, and as reliable as, handwritten signatures on paper documents.

Fundamentally, any record that is maintained, used, or submitted under any FDA records regulation is subject to Part 11, and the FDA will accept electronic records in lieu of paper records if an organization can prove that their records and systems meet the Part 11 requirements.

The General Provisions subpart also sets forth a number of definitions, and we’ve listed the ones that are most significant to our discussion here:

  • Closed System: A computer system or software whose access is controlled by the same people who are responsible for the information stored in the system. Because the opposite of a closed system, and “open system,” is subject to additional scrutiny be sure that you are able to thoroughly explain and provide documentation for a decision to classify your system as a “closed system.”  
  • Open System: A computer system or software whose access is not controlled by the same people who are responsible for the information stored in the system.
  • Digital Signature: An electronic signature created in a manner that can be verified, ensures the identity of the signer, and maintains the integrity of the document and signature. This often involves the use of cryptography and/or biometric data.
  • Electronic Signature: Symbols that represent a legally binding equivalent to an individual’s handwritten signature (as adopted and authorized by the signer).

Part 11: Electronic Records

The Electronic Records section sets forth the requirements for administration of closed and open electronic record-keeping systems, then discusses signature manifestations and requirements for establishing a link between signatures and records.

Part 11 defines a “closed system” as any computer system in which the users controlling access to the system are the same people who are responsible for the data in the system. Today, most systems can be classified as closed systems, but take special care to document control procedures around software that is hosted offsite or classified as a SaaS solution.  

This section of the regulation deals with the controls that need to be in place for all applicable electronic record systems by defining:

  • Procedures to ensure that all electronic records are authentic, have integrity, and can ensure confidentiality (where that is appropriate).
  • Validation requirements for systems that maintain electronic records to ensure that all records are accurate, reliable, and that the system performs consistently according to regulatory requirements.
  • Audit trail requirements for all regulated records to ensure a complete history of all changes to records are maintained.
  • Controls around system access and document signatures.

Part 11: Electronic Signatures

The Electronic Signatures section defines the components of electronic signatures and the required controls and procedures necessary for using them.

In general, an organization must be able to demonstrate that electronic signatures:

  • Are unique to each individual, and that the individual assigned an electronic signature has had their identity and level of authorization verified.
  • Must be based either on biometric data (such as fingerprints) or made up of two distinct pieces (ie: a User ID and password)
  • Require appropriate controls to ensure that they are verified periodically, cannot be used by someone other than the intended user, and are immediately deactivated if compromised in any way.

Practical application of 21CFR Part 11 for regulatory affairs professionals

21 CFR Part 11 is a critical regulation, and one that can be open to interpretation. Below, we cover some of the key areas that should be of concern for RA professionals. This is an overview of key areas only, and should not be taken as complete instruction or guidance for 21CFR part 11 compliance.

System compliance and validation

Any system that you are using to store electronic records that fall under FDA regulations needs to be compliant with Part 11. This includes everything from spreadsheets to full-featured RIM and document management systems.  

Software vendors will often document how their systems are developed to be compliant, and may even support system validation during implementation - but it is ultimately the responsibility of the user organization to ensure that their systems and processes are compliant with Part 11.  System validation is the process of documenting that your system meets all of the Part 11 requirements.  Software vendors can support this process by ensuring that their systems are built on a highly secured infrastructure that can be demonstrated and proven.  

The Rimsys system was built from the ground up to meet the stringent requirements of not only 21 CFR Part 11, but other industry standards and good practices guidelines (GxP).  We have put in place a rigorous validation program, built by industry experts and supported by a secure and well-documented infrastructure. For more information, visit the Rimsys Security and Privacy page.

Audit trails

Audit trails are the required system logs that track the who, when, and what of every change made to data that falls under Part 11. Audit trails should be generated and time-stamped by the system, with no ability for users to change that information. Audit trails serve two purposes under 21 CFR Part 11:

  • To demonstrate that documented policies and procedures are being followed, including that only users with the appropriate authority are managing data.
  • To prove that data retention policies are being adhered to (see below).

At any time, you should be able to view the history of any record, from a Design History File to a submission document, in order to determine what changes have been made, when they were made, and by whom.

Record retention

21 CFR Part 11 specifies that electronic records must be protected and readily available throughout the defined record retention period. Additionally, 21 CFR Part 820 specifies that records related to the quality, manufacturer, regulatory submissions, or any other data that falls under FDA regulation, should be maintained for the life of the medical device and for a minimum of two years from the date of first commercial distribution.  This is often referred to as “cradle to grave” tracking.

This means that regulatory professionals need to not only be aware of their company’s record retention policy, but need to ensure that any system being used to track regulatory submissions or other data subject to audit meets Part 11 and Part 820 requirements. Note that record retention requirements apply also to paper records where they are the source document.

Electronic and digital signatures

An important piece of 21 CFR Part 11 is its definition of electronic and digital signatures. “Electronic signature” is used to define any set of symbols that are used in place of a handwritten signature, whereas a “digital signature” is an electronic signature based on methods that ensure the identity of the signer where the integrity of the data can be verified. A digital signature can be based on biometric data (such as fingerprints) or secure user IDs and passwords that are controlled to ensure only one authorized user can use the signature.  

As a regulatory affairs professional, you should ensure that:

  • Everyone on your team who needs to sign documents has their own unique digital signature and understands the importance of protecting it. Sharing of electronic credentials is a common FDA audit observation. Also ensure that users who are not required to sign documents have appropriate access to data to discourage other users from sharing login credentials with them.
  • You are following your company’s policies concerning electronic signature audits so that passwords remain updated and strong and signatures are revoked when a user leaves or changes positions.
  • You immediately report any possible loss, theft, or sharing of user credentials or devices that generate identification codes.

While 21 CFR Part 11 is usually considered more of a “quality regulation,” it is important that regulatory teams within medical device organizations fully understand this regulation and its compliance implications.  To learn more about the regulations, click below to read our regulatory brief.

Download the full brief

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