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Open Source and Healthcare

There’s growing interest in open source and healthcare IT. Why are people interested? One, the problem space is hard. Clinical data is complex. There are technical issues - but equally complex legal and business issues. No one company or person has all the answers. A collaborative model lets everyone contribute in their area of expertise. We is smarter than me. Second, is cost. Physicians and hospitals always want to improve the quality of care for patients, but significant investments in IT are often beyond their means. Open source software provides dramatic cost savings over the status quo, enabling greater investment in systems that improve patient safety and the quality of care. Finally, healthcare standards are starting to coalesce, creating an opportunity for open source software to implement standards. The Certification Commission for Healthcare Information Technology just announced an open source EHR testing project. The Health Services Specification Project is making great progress in defining fundamental healthcare services. Other groups such as HL7 and IHE continue to move standards forward.

Steve Lohr, in a recent blog post, highlighted a number of different observations about open source software and healthcare. One point to emphasize: successful open source projects require collaborative communities; simply making source code available isn’t going to change anything. So, when looking at a new initiative such as Misys Connect, the right question to ask is, “what’s the community?” Mr. Rishel notes that software with “scant market traction” are not good candidates for open source. Market traction is not the issue (there are plenty of successful niche open source projects); the issue is community. If a software project can attract a self-sustaining community, that project can be a success.

Last week, I was with the CTO of a large provider. They’ve taken a best-of-breed approach as their IT strategy for clinical systems, and he had a strong vision on how IT should be used in healthcare to improve patient care. He has used Red Hat to drive down some of his IT costs, and we spoke about how other open source software could be used to radically alter his economics and solve his technology challenges. We came up with a laundry list of ideas that we’ll be exploring together soon, and collaborating with other forward-thinking healthcare organizations. This conversation wasn’t the first I’ve had about open source and healthcare, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

For more information on Red Hat in healthcare, see here.