Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Medical Smart Cards find their Niche

Portable data: The MyCare card is designed to store a patients entire medical history.
Credit: Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council

Unified health systems and limited infrastructure offer opportunities to medical-IT innovators.  

Most countries, including the U.S., lack integrated online patient-record systems. Patients visiting new doctors need to fill out paper medical-history forms. What's more, over time, records can become spotty, incomplete, and difficult to access. This leads to both inefficiencies in the medical-record system, which cost money, and medical mistakes, which can cost lives.
Researchers and entrepreneurs hope to change that by giving each patient a smart card containing his or her complete medical history. This approach may prove difficult to implement in the U.S., owing to security fears and compatibility issues, but the technology has the potential to transform health care in countries that have unified health systems, or where there's inadequate infrastructure for sharing records in other ways.

Researchers in the U.K. have developed the MyCare card, which is roughly the size and shape of a credit card, with a fold-out USB plug. Another project, Smartcard, first implemented in Zambia, has recently expanded to Ethiopia and South Africa and demonstrates the potential for card-based systems in parts of the world with limited infrastructure.

The MyCare card was developed at City University London; the software for it was developed at Coventry University and is open-source. The fact that anyone can download and view the code, and anyone can contribute to efforts to improve or expand on it, confers advantages.

Developers could create new software that interfaces with the data on the card—for instance, to automatically recognize incompatible prescriptions and display a warning to pharmacists. Open-source software may also provide increased security, because the software can be scrutinized openly for serious flaws. Security is a major issue surrounding medical ID cards, which store potentially sensitive private information. People fear the possibility of losing their entire medical history as easily as they might lose a wallet.

The MyCare card is also meant to interface as easily as possible across a variety of computers and operating systems. Rather than requiring installation on a computer, the card's software runs directly from the card itself.

At the current stage of development, PINs and some degree of encryption protect the data on the card. Panicos Kyriacou, head of the project at City University London, says that more secure encryption will be implemented further along in the development process.

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