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Low-Cost Cure » Linux Magazine


GNU Health, a flagship free software project for hospitals, helps ensure affordable healthcare for all, especially in developing countries.

What is the role of free software in healthcare in a developing country, where money is likely to be scarce, where technical and human resources are limited, and where people are forced to improvise more often than in a rich, industrialized country? Is open source only a stopgap solution there, or can it perhaps play to particular strengths? Linux Magazine talked to two practitioners about this. Argentine Fernando Sassetti is an associate professor at the National University of Entre RÌos for the organization of health systems and socioeconomic health policy models. Armand Mpassy-Nzoumba has more than 20 years of experience as an IT manager and IT officer at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Africa and is a research associate at the Technical University of Berlin and a lecturer at the University in Brazzaville (Congo). Both referred to the GNU Health program as a practical example.

What we first wanted to learn about was the work environment of our interviewees: In what size of hospitals do they have GNU Health installed? How many patients are cared for there? How large is the catchment area typically? What is the social situation of the patients? Mpassy-Nzoumba reports that he has already set up GNU Health in hospitals of varying size, specialization, and ownership in Africa, most recently in a private clinic in a suburb of YaoundÈ, the capital of Cameroon. The clinic has 40 beds, employs about 20 medical professionals, and cares for an average of 50 patients per day. It serves a population of about 100,000 people, and patients often come from far away. The patients’ social situations vary widely, but most of them are poor and have incomes below the national average of $241. Health care costs can consume up to 30 percent of a family’s budget, so patients are sometimes reluctant to seek medical help.

Sassetti also talks about having implemented GNU Health, especially in smaller health centers on the outskirts of the city, where mainly the most vulnerable populations are served. He gained his first experience in a small hospital. Within a year of GNU Health’s launch, 6,000 people had registered with the system, many of them from rural areas near the city. One of the most recent projects, he said, was a pilot with a municipality in the province of Entre RÌos that had 18 health care providers spread throughout the area.

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