Innovators And Influencers 2003: Profiles - InformationWeek

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Innovators And Influencers 2003: Profiles

John Halamka: Triage For IT

CIOs need to know how to deal with a crisis. Successful health-care CIOs must also understand a clinician's point of view. John Halamka, CIO at CareGroup Healthcare System, an operator of five Boston-area hospitals, is perfectly suited for his job. As an emergency-room physician, he's intimately familiar with medical workflow and culture, triage situations, and surviving on three hours of sleep a day.


ON MEDICINE: Halamka developed Massachusetts Poison Control's antidote for poisonous mushrooms
Halamka needs to short-change his sleep, given how much he packs into his days. In addition to the CIO post at CareGroup, which he's held since 1998, he's an associate dean, professor, and CIO at Harvard Medical School and chairman of the New England EDI Network, a nonprofit consortium of health-care providers that have worked together to become compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

Halamka's accomplishments at CareGroup include integrating IT systems, standardizing the processes of CareGroup's five hospitals, and implementing a Web order-entry system that replaced handwritten drug prescriptions at CareGroup's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. At his Harvard post, Halamka oversaw the implementation of, which gives Harvard medical and dental students and faculty wireless access to material for all courses. Halamka is also involved with a multidisciplinary group of professionals from several Harvard-affiliated hospitals who are studying medical informatics, or the use of IT in health care.

His duties don't stop there. Halamka teaches and lectures, and he travels frequently to consult with other CIOs, health-care officials, and experts in medical informatics on matters such as managing patient care via the Web. Among his recent travels was a meeting with the United Kingdom's minister of health, Lord Philip Hunt, to discuss issues related to electronic medical records and patient privacy.

Halamka manages to fit all this into his life, along with hobbies such as kayaking, biking, and hiking, without keeping a to-do list or a single piece of paper in his CareGroup office. His Blackberry PDA goes with him everywhere. Good thing, since he receives more than 400 E-mails a day. Halamka responds to a message as he reads it, so he never handles an E-mail more than once.

His time-efficient habits are manifested in his personal life as well. He married the first girl he dated, a fellow student at Stanford University. He and Kathy Halamka, a photographer and artist, have been married 22 years--more than half of John's life. He's only 40. The Halamkas' 9-year-old daughter often accompanies her dad on his overseas travels.

Halamka considers medicine and technology his "parallel interests," and both bit him at an early age. "I spent the summer when I was 10 working with biologists on Beaver Island, Mich., and developed a great interest in the natural world and biological systems," he says. It was around that same time that Halamka's interest in technology budded. His favorite after-school hobby was visiting the surplus stores of aircraft and electronic companies in California.

During the coming year, Halamka says he'll focus on providing Web order-entry access throughout CareGroup's other four hospitals and on implementing Web-based systems that let outpatients schedule procedures and appointments. "John has an unusual command of explaining very complex things and for teaching others," says Reed Gardner, chairman of the medical informatics department at the University of Utah School of Medicine. Gardner met Halamka eight years ago when Gardner was a professor and Halamka one of his informatics students. Above all, Gardner adds, "John has vision for what medical computing and informatics should be."

Halamka sees a lot of similarities in emergency medicine and technology. "I think of the human body in engineering terms--input/output failures, memory corruptions--and computers in medical terms," he says. "An IT problem is triage where the technology becomes the patient."
--Marianne Kolbasuk McGee

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