Open Source Personalization, Not Without Risks

Everybody understands the term ‘personalized healthcare’, it’s what we have naturally come to expect in the new age of consumerization, Customer Relationship Management and choice.

Equally, everybody (these days) understands personalization in the context of the way we use our computing devices from desktops to smartphones. Users at all levels know where their ‘Preferences’ or ‘Settings’ functions are to tune their devices to the function style that they prefer.

So has personalization touched healthcare technology yet?

The occasionally thorny subject of Electronic Health Records (EHR) would appear to be ripe for an overhaul i.e. doctors want to make it happen and patients want to make it happen securely.

Tech industry commentators have suggested that open source technology could help provide an answer to the problem EHR data most often faces — and that problem is:

The vast quantity of patient data

  • The huge diversity of patient data
  • The manipulation burden of handling patient data
  • The massive analysis and processing challenge of patient data
  • And…. as always, the security worries that surround patient data

But before we look at the case for the defense, the case for the prosecution must highlight why open source is a questionable route for certain stakeholders. Open source operating systems and applications are inherently dynamic and always changing — for the better we hope, but this cadence makes it harder for enterprise users to lock down exact technology specifications unless they purchase commercially supported versions of open source tools.

Nobody wants to fly in a plane (or trust a patient record) running open source software that is still updating — so for reasons of compliance, governance and sheer management control, this additional caveat must always be aired when we talk about enterprise open source.

An open source answer?

Healthcare IT News recently suggested that the open source R programming language could help address these challenges and give us the more personalized EHR data control that we so badly want.

R is an integrated suite of software facilities and functions for data manipulation, calculation and graphical display — just the kind of thing we need for healthcare records.

Not only can R handle these large data sets, but it has the ability to be tailored and personalized to an individual patient or physician if needed.

There are a variety of other languages focused on interpreting this type of data, but other languages don’t have the ability to handle it as well as R does,” says Nicholas Filler, contributing writer at Healthcare IT News.

Filler suggests that R as a programming language could have bigger implications pertaining to personalized data in healthcare records. The conceptualization here is a scenario where a programmer can custom build data analysis functions with the language to focus on ‘inconsistencies within patient records’ across a defined group of people by age, sex, location etc.

Potentially, we could start to find future illnesses trends that people are unaware of. Doctors would be aided by big data analytics and given the chance to sniff out trends that the human brain would not normally be able to compute and deduce.

With great power…

But with great power comes great responsibility. Many of the firms that Loricca works with are research organizations and medical equipment manufacturers who have a dedicated focus on managing sensitive research data, case study data and patient data. The security aspect of every function for these companies is of paramount importance.

Research institutions will want lock down controls on software code so that ‘dynamic’ open source software is made ‘static’ for its use cases where lives depend upon it.

The challenge with any open source technology like the R language is not always straightforward. Just because using open source R is free from a software developer perspective, paying the developers to use it diligently obviously has a cost.

As Filler points out in his original article, “Because of HIPAA, the importance of information security has been an issue, and should be a primary concern when looking at any sensitive electronic document. Cyber security is always going to be an uphill battle, and in the end if someone wants to get their hands on certain material, they probably will.”

Realistically then, we know that open source software has a big role to play in the future of all enterprise (and consumer) IT and not just in healthcare. But the control aspect is still in question for some instances, which is why you’ve read this story.

Contact our security experts today to keep your organization and your data safe from the real threats you may face in 2015.


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