Celebrating Morris Collen MD’s 100th Birthday

posted on November 12, 2013

By Bryan Culp, Director

M_Collen_photo_essayMorris F. Collen, MD, Kaiser Permanente’s own information technology pioneer, turns 100 on Tuesday. To celebrate his lifetime achievements, the American College of Medical Informatics and The Permanente Medical Group are honoring Collen with a party in San Francisco.

It’s fitting that Tuesday’s party should take place in San Francisco, which is also where the First Congress of the American Medical Informatics Association convened in 1982. Kaiser Foundation Hospitals was a sponsor then and Collen was an organizer and presenter.

On Tuesday, Collen will take a break from his usual routine to bask in the adulation of his friends and colleagues, some travelling from the Mid-West and East Coast. He has kept a rigorous writing schedule in his 100th year to prepare the second edition of his highly acclaimed, The History of Medical Informatics in the United States.

Morris Collen was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, on November 12, 1913. He likes to show people his driver’s license and point to the date of his birth. “I feel that I was born with an interest in data. My birthdate is a series of three consecutive, two-digit numbers: 11-12-13.”

He attended the University of Minnesota, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1935; in 1938 he earned his MD “with distinction” from the School of Medicine. A residency in internal medicine at USC/Los Angeles County General Hospital brought him to California in 1939 and to his career-long association with Sidney Garfield, MD, Kaiser Permanente’s founding physician.

Early career in Kaiser Richmond Shipyards

Collen, a physician in the Richmond Shipyards, became a nationally recognized authority on the treatment of pneumonia during World War II. His gift for research showed early in his published studies in The Permanente Foundation Medical Bulletin of which he was long-time editor. After two decades as an internist with Kaiser Permanente, his career took a turn into early medical information technology.

Garfield asked him to study how to use computers to improve care. In 1961, Collen was named founding director of Kaiser Permanente’s Medical Methods Research – now the Division of Research – known today for research in drug safety, risk-factor epidemiology, and genetics.

Collen and his team set to work to automate the 10-year-old multiphasic health screening exam to develop a prototype electronic health record. Note that it was a strange idea, 50 years ago, that data stored on a drive in bits and pieces could yield comprehensive patient histories and inform the treatment of patients.

Preventive screening gains national attention

The multiphasic health checkup was composed of a battery of tests and procedures that screened for conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other illnesses. Multiphasic testing allowed physicians to screen for chronic disease and to discover and treat disease in patients who had not yet shown symptoms.

This method helped to address the postwar physician shortage because nurses and other team members could conduct testing and the physicians had more time to care for the ill. The multiphasic was widely accepted in public health medicine for its preventive aspect and for the opportunity to educate patients about healthy living.

In a U.S. Senate hearing in 1966, “The Detection and Prevention of Chronic Disease Utilizing Multiphasic Health Screening Techniques,” Collen’s automated multiphasic program was described as the most advanced in the country.  When a senator asked what made it stand out from the others, Collen replied:

“There are many programs existing at the present time that utilize the various phases of multiphasic screening,” he told the senators. “I think what we have done is put together the largest coordinated program that functions online with a computer. That is our contribution.”

Drs. Donald A. B. Lindberg and Marion Ball recently described Collen’s pioneering research in an editorial in Methods of Information in Medicine, “Morris F. Collen at 100: A Tribute to ‘The Father of Medical Informatics.’” They said Collen “built the system that automated the patient checkup, the physical exam, patient history and lab results. “An early computer-based patient record and database followed. From this computerized database, large-scale population research was born. Thus, medical informatics got its start.”

Collen’s early foray into electronic collection and storage of patient data was Kaiser Permanente’s first step on the road to becoming a leader in health records technology. Today, 4 million Kaiser Permanente members enjoy easy and secure access to their doctor and their personal health data.

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