Saturday, March 28, 2009


In an article in the New England Journal of Medicine [1], Kenneth Mandl and Isaac Kohane argue that spending billions of dollars of federal funds to stimulate the adoption of existing forms of health record software would be a costly policy mistake -- because current health record suppliers are offering pre-Internet era software, which are costly and wedded to proprietary technology standards that make it difficult for customers to switch vendors and for outside programmers to make upgrades and improvements. (We note that exactly this mistake was made in the United Kingdom with its Connecting for Health program.)

Mandl and Kohane propose instead that the government should be a rule-setting referee whose role would be to encourage the development of an open software platform on which innovators could write electronic health record applications in a way which would open the door to competition, flexibility and lower costs. They point to an analogy with Apple's IPhone platform, that anyone can use or write applications for.

This is, of course, a good idea, since it would bring in its wake the opportunity for thorough testing of particular applications before they are extended to larger communities of users. The potential flaw, of course, is that it leaves open the question of what the government-imposed framework of rules should be. The HL7 organization (founded in 1987) continues to be mightily influential in government circles. Consider, to take one simple example, the case of XML. Will it be XML itself that is government imposed? Or will it be HL7-XML, a peculiarly complicated non-standard version of XML resting on an idiosyncratic approach to development that is at odds with the approaches taken by developers with XML expertise?

[1] Kenneth D. Mandl, M.D., M.P.H., and Isaac S. Kohane, M.D., Ph.D. "No Small Change for the Health Information Economy", New England Journal of Medicine, Volume 360:1278-1281, March 26, 2009. See also New York Times, "Doctors Raise Doubts on Digital Health Data", March 25, 2009.