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Twice the Energy with Half the Stress

Good Guys in Medicine: John Halamka


His goal: Computerized patient records

By Michele Kurtz, Globe Correspondent August 24, 2004

A few years ago, Dr. John Halamka’s grandmother died and his quest to computerize medical records became personal.

Halamka had pressed for electronic medical records years earlier and won awards for developing cutting-edge technology for CareGroup, which includes Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. But when his grandmother died, in part, he believed, from a medical error, he became even more driven to hasten the day when every patient’s health records are available on a computer, able to be accessed by doctors anywhere.

Now, Halamka, the 42-year-old chief information officer of CareGroup and a former emergency room physician, is helping to shape federal discussions about how to move hospitals and doctors away from pen and paper, and to link health records nationwide — overhauls that proponents say would save money and reduce medical mistakes. Researchers have estimated that there are anywhere from 98,000 to 195,000 preventable deaths each year because of medical errors.

“That would be like a 747 crashing every single day, killing everybody on board,” Halamka said.

A fuller record of Halamka’s grandmother’s past treatment might have saved her life, he said. At the time, a doctor in rural Wisconsin did not know she was already taking steroids for her arthritis and prescribed a powerful form of ibuprofen. The combination, Halamka said, caused a bleeding ulcer. His grandmother’s blood pressure dropped and she had a terminal stroke.

“It’s hard in medicine to keep track of best practices and drug interactions,” Halamka said. “But, today, if you tried to do that in our system, it wouldn’t let you.”

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