Consultant and Director Emeritus, Division of Research,
Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program
Dr. Morris Collen, a pioneer in informatics and founding member of AMIA and ACMI has passed away at the age of 100. According to his ACMI biography “Dr. Morris Collen has had a profound influence, not only on the creation of the field of informatics, but also on healthcare delivery and the creation of new models of payment and prevention.” The San Jose Mercury reported he succumbed to cancer, for which he was diagnosed in late 2013, at his home on Saturday night. Dr. Collen lived a life of accomplishment in Kaiser Permanente’s Division of Research as one of the founders in 1961 staying active up as a centenarian until his passing. Often described by his colleagues as a true gentleman, Dr. Collen was quick to offer support and encouragement to students and colleagues pursuing innovations in informatics to assure that health information technology is to promote health and health care.
"Dr. Morrie Collen was one of the true pioneers of our field — he recognized the potential of the computer very early on for patient data management, analysis, and decision support. As a clinician he also recognized the need to transform care from a reactive acute care model to a preventive care model, and he helped to establish the Kaiser health system, and the Permanente Medical Group. He was a giant in our field of biomedical informatics, and had a profound impact on the delivery of health care in the US. Our Nobel Prize in biomedical informatics — the Morris F. Collen Award of Excellence — is awarded in his honor," says Blackford Middleton, MD, MPH, MSc, Chairman of AMIA. He was honored on the occasion of his 100th birthday November 12, 2013, with a celebration that included almost all living recipients of the Morris F. Collen Award of Excellence at the St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco, the site of the very first congress of AMIA in 1982. ACMI President Alexa T. McCray, PhD, reflected that “there is no question that Morris Collen will be remembered for his seminal and significant contributions to our field. And for those who had the great pleasure of knowing him during his rich and productive career, he will be recalled fondly as one who always had a kind and generous word to say whenever there was an opportunity to do so. His was a life well lived."
Dr. Morris Collen has had a profound influence, not only on the creation of the field of informatics, but also on healthcare delivery and the creation of new models of payment and prevention. Dr. Collen’s remarkable career began in 1942 when he was selected by Dr. Sidney Garfield, a surgeon, to join him as an internist in a California group practice. Drs Garfield and Collen subsequently worked with the industrialist Henry Kaiser, who is credited with creating one of the first comprehensive prepaid health plans for both office and hospital care. This led to the establishment of Kaiser Permanente in the post-World War II period plus a comprehensive infrastructure of hospitals in the Bay Area near San Francisco and near Portland, Oregon. In the subsequent decades, the Kaiser organization grew to become a nationwide healthcare provider with millions of enrollees. Dr. Collen rose to the positions of Medical Director of the West Bay Division and Physician in Chief, San Francisco and served as a member of the Executive Committee of The Permanente Medical Group, which he chaired from 1949 to 1973.
Dr. Collen had obtained a degree in electrical engineering before engaging in medical studies. In the 1950s, the need to gain efficiencies in health care led him and Dr. Garfield to re-engineer health care delivery in their environment. Together they pursued a grand scheme of converting acute care into disease prevention, and beyond that to health maintenance. This led him to introduce a fundamentally new tool, which recently had become available to businesses, into health care—the computer. He used computers to track his members' health status, and to run comprehensive periodic health checkups on healthy plan members. This "multi-phasic screening" approach, introduced during the fifties and early sixties and delivered in the streamlined architectural environment of a multi-phasic health screening center, included physical examinations, comprehensive laboratory tests, electrophysiology tests, radiographs, and an automated self-administered medical history.
Within a decade, Dr. Collen accumulated several millions of health checkup data sets on more than a million subjects, creating in the process not only a prototype electronic health record, but also a phenomenal and unique basis for research, and this despite the immaturity of the technology available in the fifties and sixties. For the pursuit of the scientific aspects of his work, Dr. Collen founded the Medical Methods Research Division within Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, to which he added the Division of Technology Assessment in 1979 that he directed until his retirement in 1983, at age 70.
By the time of his retirement that year, Dr. Collen listed some 150 publications in his scientific output and had held appointments at multiple first-class universities, including Johns Hopkins and Stanford. He was elected to membership in the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences (1971), and has served in many capacities on many committees of the National Library of Medicine.
Since the mid-1950s, the emphasis of Dr. Collen’s voluminous writing has shifted from clinical studies to electronic medical records, and hospital and health information systems. This includes a book on Hospital Information Systems and a book on Multiphasic Health Testing Services, both of which have become classics.
Adapted in part from a tribute written by Jochen Moehr, J Am Med Inform Assoc. 2003 Nov-Dec; 10(6): 613–615. Written on the occasion of Dr. Collen’s 90th birthday, the JAMIA article provides additional information on his accomplishments after election to ACMI fellowship in 1984.