Healthcare IT is at a crossroads. In the past, the development and implementation of electronic medical records (EMRs) was not considered a priority for many providers, as EMRs were only available through expensive proprietary software systems; however, the introduction of open source software in the healthcare industry along with the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) meaningful use incentives have made the creation of EMRs a far more achievable goal.

What is Open Source Software?

Open source software is developed with programming code that is openly available to download, use, review, modify, and redistribute. In most cases, because the source code is openly available, the software program is completely free while there may be costs for service, support, and implementation. Conversely, proprietary software does not allow users to view the source code and alterations to the software must be done by the vendor.

Growth of EMRs

EMRs have become a recent focus of government and HHS, which has launched programs to encourage their adoption. The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) plays a main role in supporting the adoption of healthcare IT and created to provide information and answers relating to healthcare IT and EMRs. ONC has also developed the Nationwide Health Information Network that is a set of standards, services, and policies that enable the secure exchange of health information over the Internet (via EMRs).

Benefits of Open Source Software

There are several advantages to using an open source solution to develop and manage EMRs. The first is that open source software is vendor neutral and developed through a network of external collaborators. This means that the product is continually undergoing development, improvements, and innovations. Vendor neutrality results in minimal risk for the healthcare provider, should the vendor go out of business or merge with another company. Likewise, if a provider experiences poor service, it is easy to change vendors without changing software.

The fact that open source software is distributed online allows providers to extensively test and evaluate the system before implementing it. Open source software is also compatible with other IT systems, allowing for increased sharing of EMRs between departments and providers. In addition, the very nature of open source software allows for complete customization to meet each individual provider’s needs. All of these benefits combine to offer substantial cost savings to healthcare providers who would otherwise—using proprietary software—pay  for licensing fees, interfaces, templates, and customization, in addition to the software itself.

Things to Consider

There are several things to keep in mind when evaluating an open source software option. Not only do you want to ensure you are selecting a good application, but you want to make sure that it has a robust and active community surrounding it. This includes multiple developers supporting and advancing the code, thousands of users, active support discussions, and good online documentation. You should also investigate the commercial support provided for the application, such as companies providing implementation, maintenance, documentation, and training, which will give an indication of how developed the product has become. Lastly, think of how much or little customization you will need to adapt the software to meet your specific needs.

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