Dr. Morris Collen dies at 100; champion of computer use in medicine

Obituary: Dr. Morris Collen, who pioneered the use of computers to improve medical care, was 100

In a medical career that spanned more than 70 years, Dr. Morris Collen was often ahead of his time.

He was one of the first doctors in the country to administer penicillin and was a founding partner of the Permanente Medical Group, now the nation's largest medical group. He began introducing computers into that health system's medical practice in the 1960s — 20 years before luminaries such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs became household names.

Collen, 100, died of cancer Saturday at his home in Walnut Creek, Calif. His death was reported by his longtime employer, Kaiser Permanente.

"He was always at the cutting edge," said Dr. Robert Pearl, Permanente Medical Group executive director and CEO.

Morris Frank Collen was born in St. Paul, Minn., on Nov. 12, 1913, one of four children of a local grocer and his wife. An early interest in electronic gadgetry inspired him to study electrical engineering at the University of Minnesota, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1934. The same year, he met nursing student Frances Bobbie Diner, his future wife, who influenced him to study medicine, Collen told the Contra Costa Times in 2007.

Collen earned his medical degree from the University of Minnesota in 1939 and moved with Bobbie to California shortly thereafter.

After completing an internal medicine residency at Los Angeles County General Hospital, in 1942 he became chief of medicine in the industrial healthcare program for workers in the Kaiser shipyards. Collen spent his first years in practice treating patients in Richmond, Calif., where he was one of the first doctors to administer penicillin to a civilian patient with pneumonia, Pearl said.

Collen also instituted a system of medical exams known as "multiphasic screening."

The system, which used multiple stations to complete patient exams, allowed Kaiser doctors to screen larger numbers of patients in a day, collecting a standard set of information about each person that allowed the medical group to begin to assess and track risks for disorders such as diabetes and heart disease, said Dr. Don Eugene Detmer, an emeritus professor of health policy at the University of Virginia who first met Collen more than 40 years ago.

Collen reignited his interest in electronics in the early 1960s, attending a meeting on biomedical electronics and realizing that the medical data Kaiser was collecting could be placed on computers. Using rudimentary punch cards, he began computerizing patient records for the health plan.

Today, said Pearl, the health plan maintains medical records for 14 million past and present Kaiser members. Mining those records to learn about the outcomes of disease and treatments became the basis for Kaiser Permanente's Division of Research, which Collen led from 1961 through 1979.

The division now has $82 million in research funding, making it the largest non-university research institution in the United States, Pearl said.

Colleagues in the field of medical informatics, as the combination of medicine and computers is now known, credit Collen with founding their discipline. He was a founder of the American Medical Informatics Assn., which awards a lifetime honor known as the Morris F. Collen Medal.

Collen retired as a medical doctor at 70, but continued consulting for Kaiser Permanente and frequenting medical informatics meetings for another 30 years.

On his 100th birthday, friends and colleagues gathered at the St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco for a symposium in his honor, where he addressed the crowd — included all of the living Morris Collen medal recipients — and blew out 100 candles.

"He gave a 20-minute talk, not only thanking people for coming, but offering insight into our field," said Dr. Charles Safran, chief of the division of clinical informatics at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and organizer of the event. "It was remarkable and touching ... that he was teaching and guiding us even at that point."

Just weeks before, clinical informatics had been recognized as an official medical subspecialty — a sort of culmination of Collen's life's work, Safran added.

For the last eight years or so, Collen's energies were focused on completing his book "The History of Medical Informatics in the United States: Second Edition," said longtime colleague and friend Dr. Marion Ball, now a consultant at IBM.

For years, Collen and Ball spoke by phone every day at 4:30 p.m. to discuss his progress, but earlier this year Collen's health began to decline, Ball said.

"I don't know what to do at that time anymore," she said. "It's a void in my life."

Colleagues are continuing work on the nearly-completed, 1,000-plus page book, Ball said, checking references and getting the manuscript in "tip-top shape" for publication.

Collen is survived by two sons, Barry Joel Collen of Rhode Island and Randal Collen of Santa Rosa, Calif.; daughter Roberta Joy Hayertz of Arroyo Grande, Calif.; nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, according to Kaiser Permanente. His wife, Bobbie, and a son, Arnold Roy Collen, died before him.

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