Web-based applications could very well be the future of software. There are many companies offering free web-hosted software, such as Google Apps. Practice Fusion, an EMR company uses the same model – software as a service that is hosted on the web and provided free of charge. What are the benefits and drawbacks of free, web-based software?

Like most savvy web users, I employ a variety of free web-based software in my daily life. I have a personal free email account. I use free instant messaging software. I use free antivirus software on my personal home computer. XLEMR even uses free email SSL encryption certificates. Free software is attractive because it has no apparent monetary cost, but what is the catch? Vendors of free software usually make their money through a variety of means.

Embedded advertising is the most common method. This is one of the ways Practice Fusion makes money. If you use an instant messaging program or free-web based email, you are familiar with this model. Advertisements constantly flashing and changing can be quite a distraction.

Data Mining is a second way to make money. It is basically a means of sifting through user data and targeting advertisements based on content, or selling it to third parties for research or advertising. Gmail uses this tactic to target ads. Although medical data is protected by HIPAA, providers should consider whether they feel comfortable having their data mined.

Feature limitation is a third tactic vendors use to gain revenue. They provide basic functionality for free, but hope to entice users to upgrade with additional features. Sometimes free software will embed a watermark into documents it generates, and the only way to remove the watermark is by purchasing a license.

Limited support is another widely used method. The email encryption we use offers only limited support for the free version. It works fairly well, but there are some reliability issues, and I have spent quite a bit of time on Google trying to track down solutions.

Finally, web-based software requires a constant high-speed internet connection. There are many practices in rural areas where broadband connections are not available. We have many clients that work in nursing homes or assisted living facilities where internet is not available. Consider what may happen if the internet goes down. If you use web-based software, you will be unable to see patients. How long is your internet usually out at your home? You can imagine that will be the length of time you are unable to see patients.

Free software is not necessarily bad, but healthcare providers should be aware of problems they might face while using a free EMR or any other software.

Ryan Ricks
Security Officer