Open source medicine puts health above profits

There is an open source revolution brewing in health care where noble motivations prevail over profit.

Open source is powering a revolution in medicine and health care in multiple ways. Open source software and methods make large-scale collaborative research projects feasible, multiplying the brainpower applied to a project, expanding the data pool, and creating transparency and accountability. This is a huge win for the advancement of new treatments and cures, and cutting the costs of research. Open source practice and records software cut the costs of running medical practices, and puts practitioners in charge instead of software vendors.

This is a marked contrast to the traditional secretive, highly-competitive methods of research and medical product development. It's expensive to bring new drugs and devices to market. Research and testing can take years, and FDA approval is expensive, bureaucratic, and time-consuming. But keeping everything in-house promises big profits for the winners. So the old ways persist, but at a high cost to people who can't afford expensive patented treatments, in side effects and defects that are not discovered until after a new medicine or device is released into the market, and in entire categories of diseases that are not studied because the profit potential isn't big enough.

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It's not that one way is good, and the other is bad. There is room for both. However, the great power of open source is you never know where breakthroughs will come, which is the whole point of letting everyone play.

    At a glance: Open source in health care
    How much penetration has open source made in medicine? It's always hard to measure because few OSS projects track usage. The 2008 study An Empirical Investigation into the Adoption of Open Source Software in Hospitals by Gilberto Munoz-Cornejo, Carolyn B. Seaman, and A. Günes Koru (University of Maryland, Baltimore County), using a combination of surveys and interviews, came up with these figures:
  • 23% of hospitals have adopted open source software

  • 90% use in-house IT staff

  • 76% of IT staff have five years or more experience

  • 67% of OSS users have IT budgets of 3% or less

  • Most popular software is general-purpose software like MySQL, Linux, Apache, PHP and Perl (LAMP stack) and Firefox

Raven the surgical robot

The University of Washington Biorobotics Lab and the University of California, Santa Cruz Human Bionics Laboratory are jointly developing Raven the Surgical Robot. Raven is an amazing machine that provides a 3D real-time view inside the human body, performs surgical procedures, and operates remotely over a computer network. Raven uses a high-speed graphics processor, similar to the graphics processors in computer gaming systems, to stream a continual series of ultrasound images. The original Raven came out in 2005. Raven II was released early this year (2012) in a smaller, more dextrous version. Seven models were built and sent to seven different biorobotics labs (University of Washington, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, UCLA, Johns Hopkins, University of Nebraska, and Harvard) for collaborative study and development, including networked experiments over the Internet. Raven runs on a real-time Linux kernel and the Robot Operating System, and is designed to provide a common platform for collaborative research in robot assisted surgery.

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