12 Jan The Problem with VistA: "Its the Platform, Stupid"
Platform (plăt’fôrm) n.
- A formal declaration of the principles on which a group, such as a political party, makes its appeal to the public.
- The basic technology of a computer system’s hardware and software that defines how a computer is operated and determines what other kinds of software can be used.
I read with interest a recent article by my favorite health care reporter, Joe Conn, who has long time interest in the commercial success of the VistA Electronic Health Record system developed by the VA.
VistA has an incredible, well described impact on the clinical and system peformance of the VA. Given its availability through the Freedom of Information Act, it can and should seriously be considered as a potential solution for government-based health care information technology. I mean, why not? The several billion dollars already invested, and the several billion dollars already wasted on alternatives, would hopefully help the new administration come to their senses to realize the development of a common platform for all government related health IT would make good business sense.
In the past, this notion has been fought by the other departments who have “special” needs (NASA needs their own system, Indian Health Services has a different focus, DoD needs increased mobility, etc). Whatever the “smoke screen” reason is, the fact of the matter is that these departments are protecting their turf and their budget. However, all of these entities have some basic functionality that is required of any basic system (Patient Information Management, Laboratory, Pharmacy, Radiology, Notes, etc) that are shared across the departments. This “basic system” should be conceived of as the core platform from which the modular functionality can be built. Everyone develops to the common core and creates “apps” (modules) that tie into the generic platform but serve specialized needs.
I don’t think anyone would argue with the success of the Facebook platform, nor the various app extensions that have been automonomously developed by its users? Would anyone argue against the Apples iPhone platform and App store framework? Well, it seems that VistA has the potential, certainly within the Federal Health care space*, to become the defacto platform from which to build.
But what about the private sector? Does VistA have a similar opportunity. Among many issues that prevent the widespread adoption of VistA in the commercial sector, one unfortunately persistent problem is what “version” of the platform should we use (WorldVistA, OpenVista, vxVistA, or flavorofthemonthVistA). While this is irritating and groups like World VistA and the VistA Software Alliance have been wrangling with this issue since 2002, it belies a more fundamental problem with the widespread adopting VistA – it actually isn’t (or as currently constructed) a viable platform.
What? Heresy? What say you?
The inestimable foundational system from which VistA is based is MUMPS. MUMPS is both a programming language and a database all conjoined into one ugly mess that only a mother could love.
The story of MUMPS, and its use within the VA is quite fascinating, and the religious fervor of its faithful and its detractors is epic. However, then nature of MUMPS makes it actually quite hard to “modularize” VistA. You can’t really cleanly delineate between parts and subparts, from routines and runtimes, and most importantly demarcate between the notion of a “platform” and the specialized apps.
This has led to commercial challenges in extending the system, having to swallow the software “whole” without the inability to easily integrate other IT investments, or the limited ability of third party development shops to rally around the platform by creating supporting apps that meet critical market feature/functionality needs. Until this problem is solved – until we get to some layers of abstraction within the technology stack – VistA will continue to bump along in its adoption, we will continue to be mired in forking conversations, and bogged in difficult licensing issues to work out that prevent true collaboration.
I am hoping someone, anyone, who is interested in VistA’s commercial success will be able to create the platform/app separation that I would argue is required for VistA’s long term commercial success.
* There are specific reasons why VistA can and should become the defacto standard within the Federal Health System:
- The VA is the largest health care system in our country with over 160 medical centers and 1,300 clinics all utilizing essentially the same software.
- All the current information technology systems are derived from it (Both the DoD and IHS use a variation of VistA) and therefore share significant architectural similiarities.
- VA has been by far the most successful historical in achieving clinical transformation through the use of information technology; although IHS is by far the most innovative now health care IT branch of the Federal Health System thanks to the vision of CIO Terry Cullen, MD.