Open source continues to thrive in health care

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As the Linux kernel celebrates its 20th anniversary today, the impact of open source and free software in broad areas of technology continues to be felt. A new report from Black Duck Software reveals that in the health care sector, the number of open source software projects has risen by 31 percent since last year.

According to Peter Vescuso, Executive Vice President of Marketing and Business Development, open source software projects are accelerating the pace of software development in the health care industry, which is typically a slower-moving sector than other technologies, such as mobile.

"Users [deployment] are a big motivator in the mobile sector," Vescuso said. "That's not a primary motivator on health care, where altruism and other motivators are more important." But open source software is making it a lot easier for more development to happen in health care IT, he added.

The results Black Duck are reporting come from a survey of its KnowledgeBase, which tracks free and open source software projects across a number of forges and software repositories.

Specifically, Black Duck identified more than 1,500 OSS projects with a health care focus--projects that include 3-D medical imaging, data management, and clinical trials. This is a jump of 294 additional health care projects since a similar survey in 2010.

One such project is CollaboRhythm, an MIT Media Lab project that provides patients remote access to their personally-controlled health record while also supporting collaboration between patient and caregiver. Such access will, hopefully, increase communication between patients and their doctors, since patients can add and correct information in their own records, Vescuso explained.

More broadly, the 2011 results reveal there's a lot of investment in health care open source software. According to a statement from Black Duck, projected development costs for the 1,500-plus health care projects have grown to approximately $9.3 billion. This represents 51,000 person-years to replicate, up from the 2009 estimates of $8 billion and 45,000 person-years.

Interest in open source software within the health care sector is rising for the simple reason to combat ever-rising health care costs in developed nations, and insert cutting-edge technology into developing countries. In the US, there is also health care stimulus legislation in place that is driving facilities to work towards universal electronic health care records.

Known as the Health Information Technology and Clinical Health Act, this law was passed early in the Obama administration's term as part of the larger American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Essentially, the stimulus provides $19 billion over a four-year period to facilities that adopt and use electronic health record systems in meaningful ways. A $19 billion stimulus pot is a big incentive for hospitals to get their systems shifted to a e-recordkeeping.

The move towards e-recordkeeping is only one factor affecting the significant year-over-year growth of open source health care software. As facilities and doctors adopt mobile- and personal-technology solutions such as smartphone and tablet apps, coordination of information is becoming more paramount. Handling massive data is the purview of big data systems, which to date only open source technologies can handle.

Thirty-one percent growth is nothing to sneeze at, but with the shifts in medical IT, one wonders if subsequent years' growth of open source health care software will be even higher.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Open for Discussion blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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