Page last updated at 11:31 GMT, Tuesday, 24 June 2008 12:31 UK

Free medical tool tackles disease

A child crying after being orphaned by Aids
Tens of thousands of children are orphaned as a result of Aids

A free and simple piece of open source software is helping manage the spread of disease in developing countries.

The Open Medical Record System (OpenMRS) is providing countries, such as South Africa, with an online patient medical record system.

Users do not require any programming knowledge for the tool which helps improve how people are treated.

It could transform the prevention and treatment of diseases such as HIV and Aids, its developers say.

Many projects designed to tackle the disease manage their information with simple spreadsheets, poorly designed databases and sometimes nothing at all.

But with 40 million people infected or dying from the disease globally, the majority in developing countries, an effective medical record system has been badly needed.

It's about storing and representing information, then building things like decision support
Paul Biondich
"Our mission is to build a health records system in support of direct patient care, on the ground for the very poorest of the poor," Dr Paul Biondich, a paediatrician at the Regenstrief Institute in the US and one of the co-founders of OpenMRS told the BBC World Service's Digital Planet.

OpenMRS was formed in 2004 and is a free application that has already been rolled out in many African countries, including, Kenya, South Africa and Rwanda.

The system has been designed so that information can be stored in a way that makes it easy to summarise and analyse patient information.

"In taking care of patients there is a process of both being able to gather and interpret information to make informed decisions about what should be done with an individual.

"That need to manage information is what electronic medical record systems is all about", he said.

Sorting information

At its core, OpenMRS has a so-called "concept dictionary" that stores all diagnoses, tests, procedures, drugs and other general information.

"In some cases - especially in the context of HIV in Africa - we are seeing that an increasing amount of care is being provided by practitioners that have had less direct experience", said Dr Biondich.

The intention is to create a system that allows clinicians to gather information about their HIV patients
Paul Biondich
Using a system like OpenMRS, can help to present the information in ways that help make better-informed medical decisions.

"The intention is to create a system that allows clinicians to gather information about their HIV patients.

"For example, their physical exam findings and their laboratory test results, like the CD4 count (a measure of the strength of the immune system) and the types of medications that they have been placed on.

"By capturing that information the idea is that on subsequent visits that information can be used to further drive the process of care.

The system also has a feature called "decision support", which provides tips to clinicians about prescriptions and tests which may be necessary.

Developing systems

A conference in Durban, South Africa, has just taken place for users of the system and developers from the open source community.

"What we are trying to do is get some ground swell of interest around this technology," said Dr Biondich. "What we are finding is that there are a lot of geeks within Africa that have taught us a lot about good system design.

"We are working together with them to build these systems, such that they become their own over time.

"We can come and bring ideas and share but the whole point of this is to create a learning community, where ultimately communities become responsible for the development and further growth of these systems", he said.

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