Open Source / Software As Medicine

By MARCUS BAW, MD (39)

I believe that closed-source, proprietary clinical software is fundamentally unethical, going beyond even the pharmaceutical industry in how closed source clinical software subverts the duty to share medical knowledge, and protects intellectual property to the detriment of patients.

The Chamberlen Forceps via Wikipedia.org

When developing healthcare software it is important to recognise the additional ethical dimension that medicine brings with it. Medicine affects all human life in such profound ways that we need to consider the moral dimensions of its technological developments in a completely different way to that of other industries:

In other areas of human endeavour, for example, there is usually more choice available to the consumer — including, often, the choice to opt out of use of that technology. People cannot ‘choose’ not to need healthcare.

Further, the consequences to an individual of being denied access to the best available treatment may well include physical harm, early death, unnecessary pain, avoidable disability, and many other unpleasant and potentially permanent disadvantages.

Medical Software now IS Medicine

Not long ago, clinical software consisted of simple systems for patient administration, databases for recording clinical information, and messaging. Nothing particularly exciting, and nothing particularly likely to make huge differences to clinical outcomes. One can easily see how these dull systems weren’t considered to be ‘part of medicine’ and not thereby subject to the scientific process and moral obligations of a medical innovation.

Now, however, we have a range of complex interactive clinical systems which have become so integral to the delivery of care that it’s likely that a good system could positively influence clinical outcomes (and conversely, a bad system could cause harm!). We have disease-specific scoring systems, clinical algorithm implementations, clinical decision support, patient-facing and clinician-facing mobile apps, triage engines and much more. These things can certainly influence clinical outcome. Yet they are in most cases closed-source, proprietary, non-peer-reviewed, and not independently testable.

Continue reading