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One of the key reforms pushed by the Obama Administration is to move away from paper medical health records to paperless, electronic systems. Electronic records should reduce costs, improve diagnoses, and are a key part of future telehealth hopes.
But what are the rules governing these systems? Can some vendors build systems and lock hospitals into proprietary formats from which they will be unable to transition away?
Fortunately, there is an open source solution that has already been built with public money by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
West Virginia did it on the cheap by using an electronic medical records system built by the Veterans Administration with taxpayer dollars, saving millions in software licensing fees charged by commercial software vendors. The VA software, known as VistA, is open-source software - its code is freely available to the public and is constantly being improved by users - and it includes important features, such as a bar-coding system to track drug dispensations, to help improve patient safety.
However, many hospitals are still not using it in the United States.
Some policy makers are working to change that. Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat who chairs the Finance Committee's health subcommittee, is introducing legislation that would promote the widespread adoption of VistA and other open-source systems among hospitals that serve the poor. He also successfully pushed to include provisions in the stimulus bill to make VistA more accessible.
Though VistA does not yet have the features needed by all hospitals, it is an example of one option that communities have to ensure they will not become dependent on vendors in such an important area of their operations.