Health IT & Open Source

The truth is that I may just be getting annoyed about this debate.  A recent blog posting on Wired (click here for the article) frames the debate over health technology in terms of open source versus legacy or proprietary code, the latter being the enemy to innovation, improved health outcomes, and usability.

First off, an open source program is merely governed by some version of the GPL, which means that other developers can reverse engineer, make derivate works, or otherwise include your open source code in their subsequent open source code.  Developers that freely work together to write something cool are developers writing code.  They aren’t necessarily health experts, physicians, efficiency gurus; in fact, they may not even have health insurance if they live in the U.S. (1 in 6 of us are uninsured).  The fact that code is open source does have a big impact on how U.S. copyright law protects the work, but it doesn’t mean that somehow an open source developer is more in tune with health IT requirements, how to best integrate the system into a physician’s practice, or even necessarily what the actual requirements are for a physician to see a patient and document the visit to avoid liability for fraud or malpractice.  That’s because for developers, requirements come from outside of the development community, from users.

And guess what – proprietary developers of software listen to their user community to understand their requirements.  It’s part of the job of developers, regardless of whether the code is open source or proprietary.  And, for everyone participating in the global economy, the people that pay for your product generally drive the features and functionality in it.  If you can’t deliver, then your user base will go find someone else who can deliver.

Now, for larger health organizations, health records systems are a multi-year investment.  This inherently locks that health organization into a longer term, and more conservative, relationship with their health IT vendor, which tends to reduce the amount of change introduced into a health records system over time – especially for the larger vendors that have a lot of big clients.  The little developer out there writing code at 3am is certainly going to respond to market changes far more quickly than a really big corporation with a health IT platform.  But you know what?  Try getting the little guy to support your 500 desktop installations of his software 24×7.  Do you really think he can afford to staff a help desk support function around the clock for your business?  What happens when he has two customers with emergencies?  Or he wants to get some sleep?  And what about change control?  Even big vendors stumble in testing their code to make sure it works and is secure before releasing it (think Microsoft).  Solo, open source developers, even working in informal teams, are going to miss at least as often as a larger vendor, and introducing a lot more changes just increases the frequency that an untested change becomes an “unpublished feature” aka “blue screen of death.”  Trust me on this one: the health care user base is not going to be very tolerant of that.

Repeatedly, I hear the refrain that this stimulus money is going to go to systems that can be put to a “meaningful use,” and that is going to exclude rogue open source Health IT developers from being funded, squelching innovation in the market place.  I imagine that complying with the security regulations under HIPAA probably hinder innovation, too, but they increase the reliability of the system vendors that remain in the market place and reduce the risk to the data of patients that might be in their computer systems.  Setting minimum standards for health records systems may favor incumbent systems, but honestly – is that so wrong?  Isn’t the trade off here that when someone buys a system that is certified, they can have the satisfaction of knowing that someone else without a vested interest in the product, thought it had certain features or a proven record of delivering certain outcomes?  Perhaps the certifiers aren’t neutral because they come from the industry of EHRs, but if I recall correctly, the people that run the internet have committees with representatives from the internet industry, yet I rarely hear that the standards for the POP3 protocol unfairly burden new or open source developers.

That someone set standards for EHRs like a government agency is a lot like the government setting the requirements for you to receive a driver’s license.  Everyone who drives needs to understand what the red, octogonal sign with the capital letters S T OP means.  On the other hand, you may never parallel park again, but you better learn how to do it if you want your license to drive in Maryland.   Standards are always a mixed bag of useful and not-so-useful rules, but I don’t think there are too many people out there arguing that the government should not set minimum standards for drivers.  A certification requirement for EHRs to establish minimum standards is no different.  Ask the JCAHO people about it.  Ask the HIPAA police.  Ask the IT people you know.  If you are going to develop an EHR, you better secure it, make sure the entries in the database are non-repudiatable, and have a disaster recovery approach.  Don’t know what these things are?  Do your homework before you write a computer system.

Now, another refrain has been that look at how all of these proprietary systems have failed the world of health provisioning.  For example, look at how more kids died at the Children’s Hospital ER in Pittsburg after the hospital implemented an EHR (I can feel a class action lawsuit in federal court).  Who implements EHR’s in ER’s?  So the doctor is standing there and a patient is having a heart attack.  What should the doctor’s first act be?  To register the patient into the EHR and record his vitals?  I would think the doctor should be getting out the paddles and worrying about the patient’s heart beat, but then, I am an attorney and systems guy, not a physician.  Look – dumb decisions to implement a computer system should not lead to subsequent critics blaming the computer system for not meeting the requirements of the installation.  EHR is not appropriate every place patients are seen or for every workflow in a health care provider’s facility.  No knock on the open source people, but I don’t want my ER physician clicking on their software when I am dying in the ER, either.  I don’t want my doctor clicking anything at all – I want her to be saving me.  That’s why I have been delivered to the ER.

Now, VistA is getting a lot of mileage these days as an open source, publicly funded, and successful example of EHR in action.  And it is free.  But in fairness, VistA is not a new piece of software recently written by three college kids in a garage somewhere in between World of Warcraft online gaming sessions.  This program has been in development for years.  And “free” is relative.

For example, if you want support, you need to pay for it.  If you want to run it in a production environment, you will need to buy equipment and probably get expert help.  If you want to implement it, you will need to form a committee, develop a project plan, implement the project intelligently with input from your users, and be prepared to make a lot of changes to fit this system (or any system) into your health facility’s workflows.  And if you find yourself writing anything approaching software, that will cost you something, too, as most health care providers do not have a team of developers available to them to modify any computer system.  So, “free” in this context is relative, and genuinely understates the scope and effort required to get any piece of software to work in your facility.  “Less” may be a more appropriate adjective.  But then, that’s only true if you can avoid costly modifications to the software, and so far, there is no single EHR system that works in every setting, so expect to make modifications.

That’s my rant.  Happy EHR-ing!

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faithatlaw

Maryland technology attorney and college professor.

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