Open source could save NHS

Will free software come to the rescue of the UK's health service?

The cash-strapped NHS would benefit from adopting open source software such as Linux, according to health service experts.

It is claimed that using open source software would reduce the cost of implementing technology within the health service and make systems more future-proof and adaptable.

An editorial in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) entitled Medical software's free future, published last week, says that the cost of commercial software is putting an increasing burden on resources with the health service and suggests that open source solutions could be just the tonic the NHS needs.

"Free software concepts make particular sense in medicine," says Dr Douglas Carnall, associate editor of the Journal. "Once a customer is 'locked into' proprietary software, its makers can demand premium prices, safe in the knowledge that the client would find it even more expensive to change. Much better instead to invest time on a system licensed under the General Public Licence that will always be free," he says.

The GNU General Public Licence allows software to be modified and copied free of charge as long as it is republished under the same licensing agreement.

Other medical practitioners also call for open source software to be adopted within the health service. Exeter-based general practitioner (GP) Adrian Midgley, whose practice uses open source software, says that the most significant benefit of open source software could be adaptability.

"One of the largest benefits of open source software to the health service is continuity and business stability," he says. "It gets users away from depending on one company." Midgley says that open source software can be more easily adapted to different geographic or demographic requirements making it suitable for local practices.

Ten general practises in Exeter have in recent months moved to Linux to support databases storing patient information. This may just be the more noticeable side of open source take up.

It isn't hurting companies to use the "open source" buzzword to open press and venture funding doors that might otherwise be closed to it. But there are always two sides to every story and Mary Jo Foley points out the advantages and disadvantages of open source versus proprietary software. Go to AnchorDesk UK for the news comment.

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