Why health care is coming to the Open Source convention

This year for the first time, O’Reilly’s Open Source convention
contains a track on health care IT. The call for
participation
just went up, soliciting proposals on nine broad
areas of technology including health data exchange, mobile devices,
and patient-centered care.

One correspondent asked a bit timidly whether it would be all right to
submit a proposal if her company didn’t use open source software.
Definitely! The Open Source convention has always been about a wide
range of computing practices that promote openness in various ways.
Open source software is a key part of the picture but not the whole
picture. Open data, standards, and collaborative knowledge sharing are
also key parts of the revolution in today’s health care.

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This new track is as much a response to urgings from friends and
colleagues as it is an O’Reilly initiative. We could use help
spreading the word, because the deadline for proposals is tight. In
this blog I’ll explain why we created the track and why OSCon is a
promising venue for trends that will move and shake health care in
positive ways.

The obvious draw is that there’s a huge opportunity for open source
software and open data initiatives to make a difference in how
electronic medical records are stored and shared. Last year’s Federal
stimulus bill (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) included
$20 billion dollars in payments to hospitals, doctors, and medical
practices if they demonstrate “meaningful use” of electronic health
records.

Apart from the opportunity to make a difference, this huge infusion of
money means that there’s financial opportunity in Health IT. IT specialists
and programmers across the country who have lost their employment or
are just seeking new challenges will naturally be wondering what
health care IT is and how they can get into it. A health care track at
OSCon is, to start with, a natural way to serve our core audience.

But we want the track to be much more.

Health care IT is burgeoning, but the standards and technologies
aren’t yet up to the challenge:

  • The government is paying doctors to adopt electronic records, but they
    have the devil of a time sending those records to other doctors–quite
    a problem if your primary care doctor makes a referral to a specialist
    or if you feel chest pains and go to an ER while visiting a strange
    city.

  • A wonderful range of specialized mobile devices, as well as popular
    applications for cell phones, let doctors enter data right at the
    patient’s bed side or while walking down the hall. Even voice-to-text
    translation is available. But once in the system, these notes are hard
    to parse and process.

  • Patients are learning to take charge of their own health data, and
    lots of health care providers, not to mention Google and Microsoft,
    offer them access to such data. But getting data in and out is hard.
    Google and Microsoft provide APIs, but both the calls and the formats
    are incompatible. Most systems don’t have APIs. Security standards and
    best practices are also lacking.

  • Evidence-based medicine is the white knight of current proponents for
    reducing errors and costs. But because of the incompatibilities
    already mentioned, systems can’t share data in secure and
    easy-to-program ways.

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So the U.S.–and the rest of the world, including areas with
heretofore inadequate health care–is currently on the cusp of an
unimaginably large revolution in health care IT, but it's tripping
over basic roadblocks in data exchange.

The flip side of each challenge, of course, is an opportunity. Open
standards and open APIs will attract a broad range of IT talent and
help lead to more flexible technologies that stand up better as the
environment evolves. O’Reilly as a company, and our Open Source
convention in particular, have been involved with many of the
innovations made by open source developers, and we are excited to
bring more of this community and this experience into health care IT.

O’Reilly was one of the early promoters of the term “open source” (and
the recognized leaders in documentation for free software long before)
as well as the originators of the term Web 2.0 and organizers of
conferences on transparency in government and “government as a
platform,” or Government 2.0. People trying to use APIs and open
source software to create open platforms flock to OSCon. It’s a major
industry venue for announcements and a place where people talk
together to come up with new technical ideas.

We believe that advances in APIs, giving data to patients, open source
software, and interactive mobile devices will free health care IT. We
don’t know precisely which technologies will win out or how the whole
thing will fit together–so we want to use OSCon to help figure that
out.

Help us make OSCon a platform for developing platforms. Submit
proposals, tell your friends, and make your travel plans for Portland
in July.

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