ONCHIT Health IT Software Contests – Some Thoughts

Posted on May 30, 2012 I Written By

Priya Ramachandran is a Maryland based freelance writer. In a former life, she wrote software code and managed Sarbanes Oxley related audits for IT departments. She now enjoys writing about healthcare, science and technology.

Ken Terry at InformationWeek has an interesting editorial on Office of National Coordinator on Health IT’s (ONCHIT) latest contest for developers. This time the ONCHIT wants developers to come up with an IT product that can help ophthalmologists see better (yes, it’s a lame pun 🙂

Among the laundry list of requirements that this mythical software must possess: (I’m quoting from Terry’s article)

it must warehouse data from many different devices;
convert the data from proprietary formats to a single, vendor-neutral format;
enable clinicians to manipulate data and images;
and interface with existing EHR systems (presumably, just the top dozen or so)

Here’s the link to the slightly more detailed ONCHIT list. The first prize is $100,000 which is nothing to sneeze at.

Terry lists some problems uniquely faced by specialists such as oncologists and ophthalmologists: off the shelf EHRs don’t really grasp the nuances and details of information needed by specialists. Terry lists for example weight and height details that EHRs typically capture. Opthalmologists don’t really need this information. Typical EHRs on the other hand don’t allow for visual acuity information to be stored, at least not without (paid-for, and hence costly) customizations.

Looking at this issue as a some-time developer with some skin in the game, here’s how I see this process: ONCHIT wants to kick start IT development by getting developers interested via contests. This time it’s shining its light on opthalmologists. It has provided a list of not-so-impossible to design features, which might not capture all the nuances of features needed by ophthalmologists.

The major flaws I see in this process: the prize money is smallish, which means that the people that would be most interested in developing something would be the smaller IT shops. However, most IT developers don’t know enough about ophthalmology to truly understand what’s needed of their IT product. Till I saw Terry’s accompanying editorial, I was under the impression that this was a perfectly fine list of features to request. Also, I’m very underwhelmed by the “details” provided in the ONCHIT page. It is full of 20 dollar words, which will probably make little sense to the developers who are the intended targets of these words.

To be sure, you will see some health IT developers develop something and send them out, just because. Hell, it’s a contest, and there’s decent prize money.

Here’s what I’d rather have seen: maybe a short video that shows an ophthalmologist at work, a couple of minutes where s/he describes the main challenges s/he faces and provides the top 5-6 things that is on hizzer wishlist in an EMR. Or ONCHIT could facilitate talks between developers and specialists so each side understands what is required of them. Till then we’re doomed to square pegs in round holes software products that frustrate everyone soundly.