Recent discussions around possible solutions to the need for NHS ePortfolio development have led to the suggestion that harnessing Open Source Software (OSS) may be the answer.
So what is Open Source Software (OSS) I hear you cry?
Open Source is collaboratively developed, freely available software or application. You may now hear people using the term ‘Open Source’ across a wide variety of different sectors in order to describe a more open, networked and user generated way of developing ideas and projects. While the term applied originally only to the source code of software, it is now being applied to many other areas.
But it is not just for new projects. For established projects, the software or application itself does not have to be dismantled. There can be huge benefits of opening up the code to outsiders who then use the software, fix bugs, submit patches, file bug reports, and create new content. Often for free. In times of ever-contracting training budgets and with austerity in the national consciousness, free sounds very appealing.
NHS Hackday is the most relevant example of this concept, and does a good job of explaining why OSS fits with the concept of openness in healthcare and academia, and why it is financially beneficial. Examples of projects so far include an app to aid safe handover (in line with recommendations from the acute care toolkit, and clinical governance principles), and OpenBNF (an open source app for access to the tax-funded British National Formulary of medications, currently only available at a cost of £30 via a private provider). I think the projected cost savings may be over-enthusiastic, but the model of using the knowledge of “coalface” clinicians, and harnessing technological expertise for the public good is clearly powerful. This same argument could be made for the NHS ePortfolio as in the short-term all time saved means more time for patient care or educationally valuable activities. And in the longterm a better ePortfolio could facilitate better education and training, ultimately producing better doctors.
There are Open Source evangelists:
Carl is an evangelist, Ben Goldacre is an evangelist
And there are those with legitimate concerns about control, and whether Open Source would deliver what is needed. As Karen Beggs (ePortfolio project manager at NES) points out it is no panacea: we must look critically at our needs and apply the right solutions. Here are some responses to questions about security and maintaining control, and an insight into the potential hidden problems of not using OSS.
Encouragingly, OSS in healthcare is not new (examples), and OpenSource in ePortfolios is not new (see Mahara) so there is already work to build on.
A vision of collaboration, openness, and harnessing clinical knowledge to create rapid solutions to real-world problems, working from the ground up instead of the top down is incredibly powerful and one the NHS and education communities should celebrate.
Will OSS be the cure for the NHS ePortfolio’s chronic disease? If you’re a geek who loves the NHS maybe you can help us find out..