Why Open Source and the Net Must Play a Role in Medicine

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It would be nice if medical professionals never lost patient information. But unfortunately, doctors and other healthcare specialists are only human. And the running cliché that doctors' handwriting is hard to read is often repeated for a reason. During his presentation at the Red Hat Summit in Boston, Dr. John Halamka, CIO of Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, discussed four key reasons why medical records should be stored online. Storage, compliance, patient access and community are among the (supremely productive) Halamka's supporting reasons for his claim that online medical records will ensure a national standard of healthcare.

Privacy issues are likely to arise, he admitted, but they can be worked out, and the benefit of better organization of our medical records would be phenomenal. "Open and transparent is good," Halamka explained to this open-source-centric audience. "Proprietary is bad."

Issues with Storage

Online medical records will help with storage issues concerning patient files. Today, most medical practices write patient information on paper and store each patient's files alphabetically. Records are faxed to new medical offices when patients move, and aren't even passed along that quickly if a patient enters a hospital emergency room. Equally of importance, pointed out Halamka, if a medical office doesn't survive a natural or accidental disaster, what happens to the records?

Furthermore, he said, medical records aren't stored forever. Although it's obviously important to keep a personal copy of medical records, if professionals could look up a patient's information online it would speed up the medical process. While having an RFID (radio frequency identification) chip installed in one's arm for instant identification might seem too Gattaca-like for some users, storing medical records online for instant access is more necessary than ever.

According to Halamka, an estimated 65 percent of U.S. citizens believe that doctors keep electronic records, while only about 15 percent of doctors really do . Why? For one thing, it's expensive; doctors have to subscribe to services that update medical transactions. One answer, Halamka suggested, is for hospitals to give the needed software to individual medical practices so these updates can take place. He suggested that the Internet could-for free-use SOAP and https standards to get the job done more efficiently and affordably.

Nor is the storage issue apt to let up anytime soon. The state of Massachusetts requires that hospitals save all patient data for 30 years. "We've just crossed the half petabyte line" at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Halamka explained. In addition to the hardware requirements, he said, the knowledge-base challenges mean "whole new areas" for service oriented architecture and software as a service.

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