Wide open future

Cooperation between open source and proprietary technologies holds great promise for the future of healthcare.

The collaborative ‘mojo’ of combining open source technology with proprietary tools can lead to great things in health IT

FALLS CHURCH, VA – David Riley and Vanessa Manchester, two leaders of the Federal Health Architecture’s open source CONNECT data exchange initiative, announced the formation of the nonprofit Alembic Foundation this past spring.

In addition to continuing to develop its flagship project, Aurion, which builds on and upgrades CONNECT's open standards to promote health IT interoperability, Alembic's mandate is to serve as a neutral player to help spark collaboration among "industry, the public and government."

And crucial to that goal, Alembic officials said, is the use of "open processes in open communities to create open technologies that are contributed to the public commons."

Public and private. Open and proprietary. Free and for-profit. Can't we all get along? We'll have to if we truly want to unlock health IT's vast potential for improving care and lowering costs – and do it quickly.

In April, the Department of Veterans Affairs put out a call seeking help developing and transferring its pioneering VistA EHR system to a full open source model that will be deployed at all its facilities. Meanwhile, VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki added, "this move towards open source welcomes private sector partners."

Later that month, the VA and the Defense Department detailed plans to incorporate those modernizations into a joint EHR for the two agencies that would include both proprietary and open source software. Roger Baker, CIO at the VA, told Government Health IT the plan was to "run as many private sector modules as possible" on top of the open-source underpinnings of the health record.

With luck, these initiatives will achieve the early successes of another public-private partnership, the much-lauded Direct Project, which joined the ONC and dozens of for-profit vendors in a spirit of pre-competitive research, using open code, wiki-based communication.

The result, a secure and scalable way to transfer medical data over e-mail, came together in barely a year – a remarkable timetable given the scope of the project and the many interests involved in the process.

Zeitgeist of openness

Todd Park, CTO of the Department of Health and Human Services, called it an "example of how the public and private sectors can come together in a collaborative, entrepreneurial explosion of mojo to improve and advance healthcare in America.”

Over a year ago, Healthcare IT News interviewed an open source entrepreneur who opined that bringing "economic power and flexibility of open source to the healthcare domain" was "one of the last great challenges."

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