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Economic Stimulus Brings Opportunities for Open Source

The United States recently ushered in a new CIO for the federal government. President Obama has directed the CIO to “work to ensure that we are using the spirit of American innovation and the power of technology to improve performance and lower the cost of government operations.” Open source offers a compelling means to achieving these goals, harnessing the power of peer review and transparency of process and drawing on an ecosystem of thousands of developers and customers across the globe to drive innovation.

Healthcare IT presents an industry ripe for innovation and change. The new CIO appointment comes on the heels of the recent economic stimulus bill which includes legislation on healthcare IT that is of significant interest to the open source community.

An open source health IT system holds tremendous potential to improve the quality of the healthcare delivery system and make it more efficient. The current marketplace has had limited success in improving healthcare IT. Electronic Health Record (EHR) technology is a prime example. A July 2008 study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that only 4% of physicians in the United States had a fully functional EHR, and 13% had a basic EHR. In addition, the study also found that 2/3 of physicians cited affordability as the key barrier to EHR adoption.

We wanted to highlight two specific items that were part of the Health IT language in the stimulus package. First, the National Coordinator for Health IT is empowered to support “the development and routine updating of qualified EHR technology.” The federal government has already developed an open source health IT system, VistA, that is in use today by many private hospitals. For example, Midland Memorial Hospital, one of just 33 hospitals nationally certified as HIMSS Analytics Stage 6 of EHR adoption, replaced its existing proprietary systems with an open-source solution based on Red Hat Enterprise Linux and VistA. We’re hopeful that the federal government will continue to adopt an open source approach to the development of any qualified EHR technology and welcome creative solutions to the problem, and the direct support of the National Coordinator should help move these efforts forward.

The second piece of HIT language in the stimulus bill calls for the funding of a study on the availability of open source health IT systems to be completed no later than Oct. 1, 2010. This includes comparing the total cost of ownership of open source to existing proprietary commercial products. Open source solutions deliver high value at a low cost and this study provides the opportunity for the open source community to demonstrate the value we’ve been delivering for years. Red Hat has helped organizations across the healthcare field lower IT costs while maintaining high system availability to enable enhanced patient care. This language is the first piece of ratified federal legislation that explicitly uses the terms “open source.”

The true power of open source software comes from the collaborative development model that empowers all users of the software to contribute to its development. An open source health IT system would help modernize and streamline the nation’s healthcare system. It could be freely adopted by any healthcare provider, vendor, or clinician, enabling greater deployment of electronic medical records. Providers and vendors would have a strong incentive to integrate open source software and focus their energies on software innovation and better service and support.

We believe that the U.S. government has made a step in the right direction by considering open source in the health IT language. Red Hat is an active supporter of these provisions and we look forward to continued progress in healthcare IT.