CIO Straight Talk - Issue 4 - 61
The Many Lives
of Dr. Halamka
When we talked to Dr. Halamka, we discovered that his insatiable curiosity and energy were evident at
an early age. "When I was eight years old, I was a latchkey child in Southern California, as both of my
parents were in law school," he recalled. "I would come home from school, and to entertain myself I
would go to the local surplus store, which at that time, early 1970s, had integrated circuits that were
being tossed out by local defense contractors because they didn't meet military specs. As a
twelve-year-old, I got myself analog and digital objects, microprocessor technology, and assembly
language, and started designing systems."
At a time when "microcomputers" were considered just
playthings for enthusiasts, Halamka was the ﬁrst undergraduate at Stanford University to have a computer in his dorm room.
"That was because I built it myself," he notes dryly. Using that
"computing power," he started developing payroll tax applications, ﬁrst for the CP/M operating system and then for the ﬁrst
IBM PC. He also created a birthday surprise for Apple
cofounder Steve Wozniak's thirty-third birthday at the request of
Wozniak's mom: an electronic birthday greeting with synchronized audio and video delivered on a computer - this more
than a decade before e-cards became popular. His undergraduate honors thesis, "Espionage in Silicon Valley," was
published in book form.
While starting up Ibis Research Labs, which became a
25-person software consultancy specializing in medical and
ﬁnancial information interchange, Halamka furthered his
education. Thinking that the melding of technology and biology
would be interesting for him, he went to medical school, where
he realized that the "bionic" world was still a very distant reality.
So instead, he combined his passions, pursuing a career in
emergency medicine and building clinical information systems.
In 1996, Halamka joined the faculty of Harvard Medical
School as an Instructor while pursuing a postdoctoral fellowship in medical informatics at Harvard and MIT. "People knew
that I was a doctor who had the capacity to mine data," says
Halamka, so he was made Director of Analytics at Beth Israel,
responsible for what "today would be called big data, aggregating all of the hospital data, doing all of the quality measures, and
ﬁguring out how to enhance workﬂow with analytics."
When the Beth Israel and Deaconess hospitals merged,
in 1997, "it was believed that the only way to accomplish the
merger electronically was to rip up and replace everything in
both hospitals, and put in a very large and very expensive
vendor-based application," says Halamka. "My postdoctoral
work was titled "Using the World Wide Web to Interlink
Disparate Hospital Organizations." So, I went live, for free,
with a web-based application that uniﬁed the existing
applications of the two hospitals, and the CEO said, 'Fifty
million for a new system, or free and web? I like free and
Halamka became the CIO of Beth Israel Deaconess
Medical Center in 1998, serving concurrently, for a time, as
CIO at Harvard Medical School. About his tenure at BIDMC,
he writes in his blog: "Sometimes we're a leader and sometimes we're a follower. Deciding which to be is the innovator's challenge. BIDMC decided to ignore the entire
client/server era in the mid 1990's. As others were creating
Visual Basic, Filemaker Pro, Delphi, and Access front ends
to applications, we continued the use of roll and scroll terminal emulators. When the web appeared, we jumped in with
both feet and moved all our clinician facing applications to
thin client, cloud hosted, web-service architectures in 1998.
That approach has served us well. It still feels modern in
2013." He says: "The web is just the mainframe all over
65 CIO Straight Talk