Cheaper health care with free software

Imagine a medical device costing $100 that can monitor most of a patient’s vital signs. Or a $45 gadget that could prevent stillbirths by detecting the symptoms of fetal distress.

An early warning system that could alert vulnerable communities to a disease outbreak or verify the status of immunisation would be a boon to health workers in low-income countries. From low-cost medical devices to community-based health and hospital management systems, Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) is opening up the possibilities of affordable healthcare in regions across the world.

Experts participating in Swatantra 2017, a two-day international conference on free software which concluded here on Thursday, highlighted the increasing use of free software in integrative and precision medicine and in the development of medical devices for a variety of applications.

Setting the tone for discussions on the topic, Karen Sandler, Executive Director of Software Freedom Conservency and former executive director of the GNOME Foundation, said the openness of open source had become more important as an increasing number of devices were connected to the internet.

‘Of life and death’

In her keynote address, Ms. Sandler who is known as a cyber lawyer for her advocacy of free software, particularly in relation to the software on medical devices, said software freedom was not simply a technical or ideological issue, rather it was a matter of life and death.

She said that software freedom became personal when she realised her pacemaker was running code she could not analyse. For nearly a decade, she has been an advocate for the right to examine the software on which our lives depend. She described how none of this had gotten her any closer to accessing the source code for her pacemaker.

Luis Falcon of the GNU Health project said countries such as Jamaica, Argentina, Laos, Mexico, Cameroon and South Africa had deployed free software for public health initiatives.

Mr. Falcon mooted the idea of a unique identity with a person’s medical history that would work across the world. Ashwin Whitchurch of ProtoCentral, a Bengaluru-based company highlighted the development of affordable medical devices using open source hardware. The company, he said, was conducting trials of a low-cost Raspberry Pi-based device to monitor vital signs of a patient including ECG, BP, respiration and body temperature. ProtoCentral was also entering the market with a wearable heart rate variability monitoring patch that could predict heart attacks. The firm has also developed a monitoring device that could detect symptoms of fetal distress and prevent stillbirths. The device would be released for trials in Malawi early next year, Mr. Whitchurch said.

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Printable version | Sep 17, 2021 3:41:22 AM |

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