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Last Updated: Friday, 19 December, 2003, 08:52 GMT
Free software to aid poor doctors
By Alfred Hermida
BBC News Online technology editor

Hospital ward
Computerised records can provide quick access to vital information
Free software developed to care for US Vietnam War vets could help provide better healthcare in poor countries.

A group of open source evangelists are looking to take the program called Vista beyond the borders of the US.

They say hospitals could save money by using the free software, as well as potentially saving patients' lives.

Open source is a way of creating software that allows others to see the core of a program so that they can freely modify and adapt it.

"You could have a complete hospital information system available for free," said Joseph Dal Molin, a director of WorldVista, a non-profit corporation that aims to make affordable healthcare information technology available worldwide.

The group is working on adapting the Vista software for use in developing countries.

War legacy

The Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture, (Vista), was created by the US Department of Veterans Affairs.

The program is used in 170 hospitals and 600 clinics to keep track of thousands of Vietnam vets. The Indian health service and several other medical centres outside the US also use it.

The expense comes from replicating something across hospitals. If you are using a commercial application, it would cost a lot of money
Joseph Dal Molin, WorldVista
"People looking after the vets can easily call up all the medical records using one program," Mr Molin told BBC News Online.

"It has been used for medication management," he explained, "reducing errors in giving people the wrong drugs by 90%."

The appeal of having a unified computer system that can provide quick and easy access to patient records is obvious.

But for developing countries, the cost of such a system can place a huge drain on already stretched healthcare resources.

Mr Molin said this was one of the main attractions of using an open source program like Vista, as there are no upfront costs for the software or license fees to pay.

"It doesn't cost you $10m for something as complex as this. It wouldn't cost a lot of money to do an entire country," he said.

"The expense comes from replicating something across hospitals. If you are using a commercial application, it would cost a lot of money."

Software hurdles

Open source is widely seen as a way of helping the poorer nations bridge the digital divide by providing software at a fraction of the cost of commercial programs.

But countries which have tried out open source in areas such as education have found it tricky to implement and maintain as they often lack the technical expertise in this area.

Mr Molin admitted that turning Vista into a reliable computer system that could be easily used in different cultures and languages was a challenge.

"We are now working to make it easier to implement," he said. "Our goal is to make it much easier to adapt and we are already talking to Malaysia about running a pilot programme there.

His group is hoping to foster an international community of doctors and programmers who will work on the software and adapt it to their local needs.

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