August 16, 2000

Site sells Open Source to the medical industry

Author: JT Smith

By Grant Gross
Managing Editor

Ignacio Valdes wants to pull the medical industry into the Open Source community.

Valdes, a psychiatrist from Houston, Texas, believes an Open Source approach would reduce the reported millions of dollars health-care facilities seem to waste on IT projects. In March, he founded the Web site LinuxMedNews to spread the news about Open Source software projects being developed for medical use.

"I think I was meant to be the agent of change in medicine, and that's what the whole site is about," says Valdes, who worked in IT for 10 years before going to medical school. "I thought the way I could contribute now was to start a site that would unify the movement and be a cheerleader."

Valdes had been aware of the Free Software movement when he was a computer science grad student in the late '80s. As he moved into the medical arena, he noticed dozens of proprietary software companies competing with each other, often with wasteful results.

LinuxMedNews links to a report by Healthcare Informatics claiming that each health-care facility in the country spent between $5 million and $50 million on failed software systems during the 1990s.

"The closed source model wasn't working, and it never had," Valdes says. "No one [medical software] company has the engineering resources to complete a project and stay in business."

Instead, when an Open Source medical software project fizzles out, "it's not really a failure," he adds. "Someone can pick the ball up and take it the next 10 yards.

"Open Source development is a very organic thing. It'll react to changing conditions, which is essential in medicine."

Range of medical projects

The potential for Open Source projects in medicine is virtually unlimited, Valdes says. Projects range from simple prescription-printing software to portable computers doctors can use to record patient charts, eliminating the often-illegible handwritten charts.

When Valdes began researching the need for his Web site, he found 17 Open Source projects related to medicine. The projects list on his site includes dental practice management software, a Palm OS drug database, and a project to assemble health-care records from Open Source XML components.

Valdes, known by his poker nickname "Saint" on the site, also tries to predict the future of medicine, in an article titled, Beyond This Horizon. He sees a time when Open Source projects will help first-year medical students treat simulated patients.

"By the time you've finished your first year, you've seen 3,000 patients, you've killed 50 of them, and you've been sued three times," Valdes says about the future virtual patient software. "Medical school will be different then it is now, when you sit in a lecture hall for an entire year."

Room for discussion

Valdes' site, with the subtitle "Revolutionizing medical education and practice," will look familiar to fans of popular Open Source news/discussion sites. LinuxMedNews includes room for discussion of every article, and Valdes has posted about 85 articles since late March.

Reader posts range from fan mail to, "Too much hyperbole. Stop hitting us over the head with your opinions." The site is averaging 1,000 to 2,000 visitors a week, Valdes says, and reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.

"So far no one's really challenged me on the validity of the idea, but I welcome that challenge," he says. "At this point, I don't think we're a real threat to anybody. If someone harshly criticizes this idea, I'll consider that a victory because that means we're a threat."

One frequent visitor is Tim Cook, project coordinator of the FreePM Project.

Cook, formerly a hospital information systems professional, says Valdes is providing an important service to the medical industry. "The open source medical informatics community is small but growing rapidly," Cook adds. "Ignacio saves me time mining the Net for relevant articles."

Cook says he frequents the site both for news links and for Valdes' own articles. Oh, and it's good for Cook's ego: LinuxMedNews "occasionally mentions my Open Source project," he jokes.

Valdes hopes the site will start reaching medical-school students "because they're not crusty in their ways."

"The old guys don't get it," he says. "Medicine changes very slowly. It's going to be a very uphill battle for the next 10 years."

Category:

  • Open Source
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