Open Source Software and the Path to EHR Heaven (Part 2 of 2)

The previous segment of this article explained the challenges faced by health care organizations and suggested two ways they could be solved through free and open source software. We’ll finish the exploration in this segment of the article.

Situational awareness would reduce alert fatigue and catch errors

Difficult EHR interfaces are probably the second most frustrating aspect of being a doctor today: the first prize goes to the EHR’s inability to understand and adapt to the clinician’s workflow and environment. This is why the workplace redounds with beeps and belches from EHRs all day, causing alert fatigue and drowning out truly serious notifications. Stupid EHRs have an even subtler and often overlooked effect: when regulators or administrators require data for quality or public health purposes, the EHR is often “upgraded” with an extra field that the doctor has to fill in manually, instead of doing what computers do best and automatically replicating data that is already in the record. When doctors complain about the time they waste in the EHR, they often blame the regulators or the interface instead of placing their finger on the true culprit, which is the lack of awareness in the EHR.

Open source can ease these problems in several ways. First, the customizability outlined in the first section of this article allows savvy users to adapt it to their situations. Second, the interoperability from the previous section makes it easier to feed in information from other parts of the hospital or patient environment, and to hook in analytics that make sense of that information.

Enhancements from outside sources could be plugged in

The modularity of open source makes it easier to offer open platforms. This could lead to marketplaces for EHR enhancements, a long-time goal of the open SMART standard. Certainly, there would have to be controls for the sake of safety: an administrator, for instance, could limit downloads to carefully vetted software packages.

At best, storage and interface in an EHR would be decoupled in separate modules. Experts at storage could optimize it to improve access time and develop new options, such as new types of filtering. At the same time, developers could suggest new interfaces so that users can have any type of dashboard, alerting system, data entry forms, or other access they want.

Bugs could be fixed expeditiously

Customers of proprietary software remain at the mercy of the vendors. I worked in one computer company that depended on a very subtle feature from our supplier that turned out not to work as advertised. Our niche market, real-time computing, needed that feature to achieve the performance we promised customers, but it turned out that no other company needed it. The supplier admitted the feature was broken but told us point-blank that they had no plans to fix it. Our product failed in the marketplace, for that reason along with others.

Other software users suffer because proprietary vendors shift their market focus or for other reasons–even going out of business.

Free and open source software never ossifies, so long as users want it. Anyone can hire a developer to fix a bug. Furthermore, the company fixing it usually feeds the fix back into the core project because they want it to be propagated to future versions of the software. Thus, the fixes are tested, hardened, and offered to all users.

What free and open source tools are available?

Numerous free and open source EHRs have been developed, and some are in widespread use. Most famously is VistA, the software created at the Department of Veterans Affairs, and used also by the Indian Health Service and other government agencies, has a community chaperone and has been adopted by the country of Jordan. VistA was considered by the Department of Defense as well, but ultimately rejected because the department didn’t want to invest in adding some missing features.

Another free software EHR, OpenMRS, supports health care in Kenya, Haiti, and elsewhere. OpenEMR is also deployed internationally.

What free and open source software has accomplished in these settings is just a hint of what it can do for health care across the board. The problem holding back open source is simple neglect: as VistA’s experience with the DoD showed, institutions are unwilling to support open source, even through they will pay 10 or 100 times as much on substandard proprietary software. Open Health Tools, covered in the article I just linked to, is one of several organizations that shriveled up and disappeared for lack of support. Some organizations gladly hop on for a free ride, using the software without contributing either funds or code. Others just ignore open source software, even though that means their own death: three hospitals have recently declared bankruptcy after installing proprietary EHRs. Although the article focuses on the up-front costs of installing the EHRs, I believe the real fatal blow was the inability of the EHRs to support efficient, streamlined health care services.

We need open source EHRs not just to reduce health care costs, but to transform health. But first, we need a vision of EHR heaven. I hope this article has taken us at least into the clouds.

About the author

Andy Oram

Andy Oram

Andy Oram writes and edits documents about many aspects of computing, ranging in size from blog postings to full-length books. Topics cover a wide range of computer technologies: data science and machine learning, programming languages, Web performance, Internet of Things, databases, free and open source software, and more. My editorial output at O'Reilly Media included the first books ever published commercially in the United States on Linux, the 2001 title Peer-to-Peer (frequently cited in connection with those technologies), and the 2007 title Beautiful Code. He is a regular correspondent on health IT and health policy for He also contributes to other publications about policy issues related to the Internet and about trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business.