I talk about Open Source and Free Software quite a bit. I’m sure that many are skeptical as to whether or not this really means anything practical for their business, after all, you may think, “Open Source only benefits nerds and academia”. This week, we begin a series of articles that will highlight specific Open Source and Free Software programs that have real world applications for your business. There are two terms to distinguish: Open Source and Free Software. There are subtle distinctions between the two, suffice to say, we need not get into software licensing minutiae to help you understand how this all can save your company money. One thing to keep in mind though, when we say “Free Software”, think free as in free speech or liberty – not free as in no cost. Also keep in mind that the vast majority of Free and Open Source Software are in fact available at no cost. You are could be wondering how companies that develop this type of software make a living. Most of their income is derived through consulting and support of their products. It’s a different business model than most of us are familiar with, but it does work – and it works well.
What can free software do for your medical practice? A quick search on Source Forge under the Medical Sciences Applications yields over 500 results, ranging from molecular dynamics simulations and chemistry development tools to full featured hospital information systems and complete medical practice management packages. To give you a general idea of savings by using open source packages to manage your practice, let’s look at the case of a Doctor in Milwaukee that was paying thousands of dollars a year to use a popular proprietary practice management package. Gartner Technology set him up with an Open Source practice management package that is even more feature rich than the program they had been paying into year after year if they wanted the latests insurance forms. We did the data conversion – over 9000 patient records – and now they get the latest versions of the software as it becomes available without paying for it every year. If the staff needs any kind of support for the software, they can pay per incident (less than $100.00, the last time I checked), or they can pay a monthly subscription which varies, depending on the number of Doctors in the practice. We opted for the six month subscription when the software was first deployed, but now the office is on a per incident rate. The doctor told me that they came out $1000.00 ahead after Gartner Technology labor and other related deployment fees on the first month of use.
There are many of these software packages to choose from too, depending on the details of your practice. In addition to several overall practice management solutions, there are also many specific to specialty. For instance, the Oncologist may be interested in the caTIES, a program that can extract coded information from free text Surgical Pathology Reports (SPRs), using controlled terminologies to populate caBIG-compliant data structures. It also has the ability to search this info. There is also AMIDE, the Medical Imaging Data Examiner tool for viewing, registering, and analyzing anatomical and functional volumetric medical imaging data sets. The list goes on. There are even large scale packages like OpenVista the Open Source version of VistA, which is an enterprise grade health care information system developed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and deployed at nearly 1,500 facilities worldwide.
So, if you are in the market to update or change your practice management software, or you run a lab, don’t just go by what the sales people from the big name vendors tell you. Look into Free Software and Open Source solutions too – you may be surprised at what you find.