Update from OSCON: The Open Source Movement Tackles Health Care

The O'Reilly Open Source Conference (OSCON) was held this past week in Portland, Oregon. The annual conference is an opportunity to share ideas, skills, and best practices in the development and implementation of open source technology.

"Open source," as we've written before, involves "opening" up the source (in the case of technology, this is typically the source code) so that others beyond the original creators can develop, expand, and modify the code. Unlike proprietary systems in which you are forbidden to "open the hood" to tinker with the moving parts, open source allows anyone to download the code and then alter it without restriction or fear of punishment.

Many people argue that because open source involves a community of developers always working to improve the code, open source actually encourages more rapid innovation and improvement than does a closed, proprietary system. And while it's taken several years to make this case, open source has seen widespread adoption in enterprise. Companies no longer balk (as much) at the thought of using tools like Apache, Linux, or Mozilla Firefox, all open source software. And while enterprise application remains much of the focus of open source development and of the OSCON conference, the event introduced a health care track, pointing to the myriad of ways in which open source technologies, along with open data, can enhance health care delivery.

Health care was once something delivered by one family doctor, with our records stored in her or his memory and file cabinet. Now we are less likely to have such an intimate relationship with a single physician. There are new ways now we think about our health and track our well-being and a variety of ways in which we interact with the medical profession.

As Andy Oram writes in his summary of the conference, the health care industry is slow to change for two reasons. First, there are numerous regulations, certifications, and control mechanisms in place that make innovation challenging. Health care workers as well as the software systems they utilized operate under stringent privacy and technical controls. Second, the actors themselves are, Oram argues, an independent bunch. Over 80% of medical practices in this country are operated by one or two physicians.

Open source solutions are being applied to a number of areas in the health care industry, notably electronic records management. Presenters at OSCON included representatives from government agencies, corporations, and universities, including Google, OpenEMR, and VistA (the Veterans Administration's health data management system). And although there will be an uphill battle for widespread adoption and implementation, as Oram points out, proprietary software companies have yet to make sizable inroads themselves. Questions of standards, budget, training -- on top of an industry slow to accept the changes -- make the development of health care technologies challenging. But the need to provide better data and, simply, better health care is paramount. And the argument from OSCON is that open source development can help engage a community to work towards solutions.

Videos and resources from the conference are available at the OSCON website.

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