A physician’s son

My father is an emergency medical physician, a fact that has had a subtle but discernable influence on my career as a software engineer. Emergency medicine and software engineering are of course very different problems, and even though there are times when a major and cascading software systems failure can make a datacenter feel like an urban emergency room on a busy Saturday night, the reality is that if we software engineers screw up, people don’t generally die. (And while code and machine can both be metaphorically uncooperative, we don’t really have occasion to make a paramedic sandwich.) Not only are the consequences less dire, but the underlying systems themselves are at opposite ends of a kind of spectrum: one is deterministic yet brittle, the other sloppy yet robust. Despite these differences, I believe that medicine has much to teach us in software engineering; two specific (if small) artifacts of medicine that I have incorporated into my career:

M&M and Journal Club are two ways that medicine has influenced software engineering (or mine, anyway); what of the influences of information systems on the way medicine is practiced? To explore this, we at ACM Queue sought to put together an issue on computing in healthcare. This is a brutally tough subject for us to tackle — what in the confluence of healthcare and computing is interesting for the software practitioner? — but we felt it to be a national priority and too important to ignore. It should be said that I was originally introduced to computing through medicine: in addition to being an attending physician, my father — who started writing code as an undergraduate in the 1960s on an IBM System/360 Model 50 — also developed the software system that ran his emergency department; the first computer we owned (a very early IBM PC-XT) was bought to allow him to develop software at home (Microsoft Pascal 1.0 FTW!). I had intended to keep my personal history out of the ACM discussion, but at some point, someone on the Board said that what we really needed was the physician’s perspective — someone who could speak to the pracitical difficulties of integrating modern information systems into our healthcare system. At that, I couldn’t hold my tongue — I obviously knew of someone who could write such an article…

Dad graciously agreed, and the resulting article, Computers in Patient Care: the Promise and the Challenge appears as the cover story on this month’s Communications of the ACM. I hope you enjoy this article as much as I did — and who knows: if you are developing software that aspires to be used in healthcare, perhaps it could be the subject of your own Journal Club. (Just be sure to slip the kids a soda or two!)

Posted on September 24, 2010 at 2:23 am by bmc · Permalink
In: Uncategorized

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