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Communities Help Open Source Electronic Health Records Thrive (Part 2 of 3: OSEHRA)

Posted on December 9, 2014 I Written By

Andy Oram is an editor at O'Reilly Media, a highly respected book publisher and technology information provider. An employee of the company since 1992, Andy currently specializes in open source, software engineering, and health IT, but his editorial output has ranged from a legal guide covering intellectual property to a graphic novel about teenage hackers. His articles have appeared often on EMR & EHR and other blogs in the health IT space. Andy also writes often for O'Reilly's Radar site ( and other publications on policy issues related to the Internet and on trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business. Conferences where he has presented talks include O'Reilly's Open Source Convention, FISL (Brazil), FOSDEM, and DebConf.

The first article of this series tried to convince you that community is important, and perhaps even the secret weapon behind open source software. Some open source project leaders understand this better than others, so a range of approaches to community has been developed.

In this article I’ll jump right in on the most critical open source project in health care–the famous VistA electronic health record–while saving some other impressive, although less well known, projects for the final article in the series.

Many open source projects in health IT don’t try to build communities. They feel that they put out useful software and they hope people use it–but they don’t do the work that, for instance, attendees at Community Leadership Summits have put in to make sure they make community members full-fledged partners in their work.

Brady Mathis, a health IT developer, discovered this problem when he became an enthusiastic adopter of the Tolven EHR. He told me that the project leaders seemed to lack a focus on community–a lapse all too easy to observe across many health IT projects. Specifically, he observed little responsiveness on forums, and when his firm offered back code improvements, he found no plan for developer contributions and guarded interest from the project team. However, he remains an enthusiastic support of Tolven, as one can see in a recent article he wrote, and he hopes to help it develop more involvement by its community.

The most famous open source EHR is VistA, and it has been widely adopted around the world (notably in Norway and Jordan) but has not enjoyed the penetration one would expect from such a mature product in the United States. As we saw in my previous article, the state of community around VistA may be implicated.

VistA has one of the most unusual histories of any open source project. As documented in Phillip Longman’s book, Best Care Anywhere, its primeval development was a famously grass-roots efforts by doctors and IT experts in the Veterans Administrations (now the Department of Veterans Affairs). VistA ultimately was accepted by VA management and recognized as a public resource that should be shared. Citing its code as public domain, the VA “threw it over the wall” (a phrase I have heard from VistA supporters) and continued to maintain it internally while having minimal contact with people outside.

A number of projects grew up around VistA, hoping to turn its illustrious success within the VA into an open source miracle in the rest of the globe. And indeed, the true community effort was the WorldVistA project. Several companies also grew up around VistA, two of whom I interviewed for a previous article about open source EHR projects.

All of these projects have survived, but none have broken through to the kind of success that VistA would seem to deserve in the swelling EHR market created by Meaningful Use. There could be many reasons for this inherent in VistA software. But I can’t find a technical reason. A basis in MUMPS, which makes VistA harder to understand, has not stopped companies such as Epic and InterSystems from reaching big adoption. Furthermore, the functions that the VA didn’t see as necessary (such as support for pediatricians) could be added by others.

Roger Maduro of Open Health News told me that licensing was a hurdle to pulling together a VistA community. As mentioned already, VistA itself is in the public domain. The WorldVistA team put their version under the GNU Public License (GPL), which has worked well for Linux and many other free software projects. But other GPL projects use programming languages that allow commercial projects to be built on top of a free software base, but the MUMPS language underlying VistA does not allow that.

The ungainly relationship between the VA and the putative community thus becomes an obvious candidate for improvement. And in 2011, the VA took decisive action in that area.

The VA had observed the success of many open source communities, notably the Apache web server, a project created totally by a committed community. Web servers are some of the most important software in the world (being the means by which people read this article and millions of other sites), and Apache has been the leader in this area for many years.

It so happens that one of the Apache leaders, Brian Behlendorf, also led one of the key open source projects promoted by the US government in health care, the CONNECT project for health information exchange. The VA consulted with Brian and others to develop an audacious plan for creating a healthy open source community out of the disparate stakeholders in VistA. The result in 2011 was the Open Source Electronic Health Record Alliance (OSEHRA).

OSEHRA has learned the lessons of successful community-building from other open source projects and has pursued them doggedly. They solicit input from users as far afield as Jordan and India, major users of VistA software. So far, these foreign collaborators have not returned changes. Culture change is hard, especially across cultures!

In an interview with Seong K. Mun, President and CEO of OSEHRA, I learned that it uses regular summits to develop “two-way conversations.” One success is contributions to a fundamental module called Fileman. The current version (20.2) was developed by a community over two-year period, with up to 20 people participating in discussions. The WorldVistA team reportedly feels sidelined by OSEHRA, but a fresh approach was needed.

In particular, OSHERA knew they had to get rid of the proprietary variants created over time by the companies that market VistA software. They needed one, consummately unified version of VistA across the VA and all outside users. As suggested by my earlier article, they are inspiring vendors to contribute code back to this harmonizing project.

However, when VistA felt it needed to do a major refactoring of VistA, it did not ask the community to step up, but hired a consulting firm. The sense I got from VistA supporters was that this job was too big for the current community community to take on. I suspect that, in particular, it required MUMPS skills the community didn’t have.

It’s hard to decide whether technical upgrades or community upgrades are harder. OSEHRA is dealing with both, and with notable success. My next article will cover some other open source projects dealing with communities.

VA Asks DoD To Adopt Vista

Posted on April 2, 2013 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

For decades, the Department of Defense has struggled to build an EMR, but 20 years and $10 billion later, still hasn’t pulled together a satisfactory system. The DoD’s system, AHLTA, has seen project failure after project failure and still isn’t doing what it’s supposed to do efficiently. Now — at long last — DoD is looking at different options.

In theory, the DoD is still hacking away at the iEHR, a joint system with the VA, which is due for testing in 2014. iEHR is slated to include a mix of commercial and open source technologies. But the evidence suggests that iEHR is another failed project.

A few weeks ago, the VA submitted a formal proposal to the DoD suggesting that the Military Health system migrate away from AHLTA,working in collaboration with open source VistA community members such as the Open Source Electronic Health Record Agent (OSEHRA), WorldVista and several other companies involved in VistA development, OpenHealthNews notes.

The prospect of seeing VistA put in place has its advocates excited, to say the least. Seeing an opportunity, the open source community has launched a petition on the White House web site urging the DoD to adopt VistA, reports OpenHealthNews.

So, is moving to VistA a good idea? For those, including myself, who aren’t up to date on just how extensive VistA’s presence is, note that it already embraces (stats courtesy of OpenHealthNews):

• Over 6 million patients, with 75 million outpatient visits and 680,000 inpatient admissions
• More than 1,500 sites of care, including 152 hospitals, 965 outpatient clinics, 133 community living centers, and 293 Vet Centers
• 244,000 employees including more than 20,000 physicians and 53,000 nurses
• Affiliations with more than 1,200 educational institutions with more than 100,000 health care students receiving clinical training from VA each year

VistA is one of the few EMRs out there that has been proven successful over time, garners universal respect and has an enthusiastic user base. Oh, and of course, the price is right even after you add in integration and development costs.  I personally signed the White House petition — will you be doing so?

Also, for another look at the integration failures of the DoD and VA check out Jon Stewart’s rant.

Having Already Failed Once, DoD Snubs Open Source For Second EMR Try

Posted on August 28, 2012 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

In theory, the VA now has everything it needs to standardize and upgrade the open source VistA EMR, especially after forming the Open Source Electronic Health Record Agent (OSEHRA) organization.  But when it comes to bringing that expertise to the DoD’s EMR projects, it seems OSEHRA alone can’t do the trick.  Sadly, it’s no surprise to find this out, as the DoD has an abysmal track record on this subject.

OSEHRA, an independent non-profit open source group, was launched about a year ago. The group is working away at improving compatibility between versions of VistA at the 152 VA medical centers.  According to an InformationWeek piece, there’s now about 120 different versions of VistA ticking away within the VA system.  OSEHRA hopes to create a common core — a “minimum baseline standard”  for 20 VistA modules — which will make it easier for the medical centers to deploy enterprise-wide apps.

The DoD, meanwhile, is hacking away at a joint system with the VA, called iEHR, which is due for initial testing in 2014.  A few months ago, DoD told Congress that while open source technology will be part of iEHR, the agency will also include commercial and custom applications, using a service-oriented architecture.

What that means, in practical terms, is that OSEHRA will be cooling its heels waiting for DoD contractor Harris Corp. to build an Enterprise Service Bus and open source APIs to allow for open source development on the project.

Now, that wouldn’t raise my suspicions so much if DoD hadn’t proven to be a collosal failure at developing an EMR.  Did anyone else here catch the major slap GAO delivered to DoD a couple of years ago, noting that its 13-year, $2 billion AHLTA application was a near-complete fizzle?  If anyone at DoD had humility, or if their bosses were held accountable for AHLTA’s staggering losses, nobody would let them drive the technical choices on this project.

Am I the only one who sees a recipe for billions more in DoD losses here?