Open source becomes a force in health care IT

Open source is starting to make inroads into health care IT, which is exactly what proprietary vendors like McKesson and Cerner don't want.

Open source is picking up steam in enterprise computing, even as the economy peters out. If West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller has his way, open source will soon make its mark on medicine, too, with the lower cost of open source a key impetus behind the move.

Rockefeller last week introduced Senate Bill 90, the "Health Information Technology Public Utility Act of 2009," which "would create a Public Utility Board under (National Coordinator for Health Information Technology) David Blumenthal to push a model of open-source health software, offer grants to hospitals which adopt the model, ensure interoperability with other systems, and create quality measures for the software," as ZDNet's Dana Blankenhorn reports.

This is just the latest demonstration of open source's growing strength in the health care market, some of which is sponsored by President Barack Obama's economic stimulus plan, as Red Hat points out.

With $20 billion in stimulus funds earmarked to induce hospitals to adopt electronic records, one open-source start-up stands to benefit in a big way: Medsphere, the company that has commercialized VistA, the U.S. Department of Affairs' health care management system created with billions of dollars in taxpayer funds.

Medsphere is selling an upgraded version of VistA for comparative pennies on the dollar. Given that a comparable proprietary system routinely runs $20 million to $100 million, according to data assembled by The Wall Street Journal, Medsphere could completely upend the proprietary health care management market.

Proprietary vendors like McKesson and Cerner hold out the same tired arguments that used to be trotted out to combat Linux, MySQL, and other open-source technology: open source is really not cheaper, the software isn't as feature-rich as theirs, etc.

Given how much success such arguments did (not) have against other open-source projects, here's some advice for Cerner and the others determined to cling to their monopoly rents: it won't work. Open source, open standards, and open data is the new starting point for the software conversation.

Medsphere Chairman Kenneth Kizer says Medsphere's OpenVistA "can be installed in one third the time and for about one third the cost of the big-name proprietary systems." Particularly now, that's a story that is going to resonate.

Open source has updated its marketing message. Time for the proprietary health care vendors to do the same.

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