These days, open source software is downright fashionable. CIOs know it, and public- and private-sector enterprises of all types gladly run open source applications in server rooms and on front-line staff workstations.

History seems to be repeating itself, except now the world of medicine is the stage.

Slow Going
Health-care costs put a heavy strain on federal, state and local government budgets. Medicare and Medicaid, especially wolf down huge sums of money.

To help trim health-care costs, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT was created in 2004 to jump-start health IT activities in the federal government, and between the federal government and the private sector.

"Health IT" is a loose term for efforts to modernize the U.S. health-care system's methods for collecting, using and sharing patient information and other medical data. Federal officials and industry experts have long recognized that the medical sector has not fully experienced the technology revolution that's hit other sectors of the U.S. economy.

Observers cite the fragmented nature of medical information systems as the primary reason the medical sector runs at the rear of the technology-adoption pack. Physicians' information systems don't talk to hospitals' systems, which don't talk to clinics' systems, which don't talk to pharmacists' systems.

 

Open Source Medicine
Other interested parties also launched their own projects to stimulate health IT, but these efforts seek to extend open source applications and technologies to the world of medicine.

The most recent such effort, the Open Health Information Project (OHIP), was announced by a coalition of six groups in March 2007. The public- and private-sector groups created the OHIP to deliver interoperable, open source applications to health-care providers.

The OHIP is part of a larger effort, known as the Eclipse Open Healthcare Framework (OHF), which was first announced in late 2005.

Originally a consortium that formed when IBM released the Eclipse Platform into open source, Eclipse grew into an independent body to drive the platform's evolution to benefit the providers of software development offerings and end-users.

The OHF's goal is to create an open source framework for building interoperable, extensible health-care systems by helping software providers and integrators cost-effectively create customized offerings for health-care delivery entities.

Code Loupe
Though the open source development model - which permits a collaborative group of users to study, change and improve software code - creates an environment in which things get done quickly, there is a potential downside.

Outside code is sometimes contributed to open source applications, and if that outside code isn't properly tracked, any organization that used the application might be held liable for violating intellectual property rights.

Look for expanded coverage in the June 2007 issue of Government Technology magazine.

Shane Peterson  |  Associate Editor