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Dr. Morris Collen — Medical Pioneer: 1914 – 2014

Dr. Morris Collen -- Medical Pioneer: 1914 - 2014

Long before Steve Jobs and Bill Gates became well known in the Silicon Valley, Kaiser Permanente’s Dr. Morris Collen was using computers to enhance health care, store medical records, and track diabetes and heart disease. He was the founder of the science of medical informatics (medicine and computers), the last living partner that originally started The Permanente Medical Group, and the founder of the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research in Oakland.

Collen died recently of cancer, approaching his 101st birthday, and up until nearly the end of his life he was still active in Kaiser Permanente.

“I was always amazed at his energy, his wit, and the focus on the future,” said Dr. Susan Smarr, Physician-in-Chief of the Kaiser Permanente Santa Clara Medical Center.


Smarr is a member of the Board of Directors of the Medical Group, and she saw Collen regularly at Board meetings. He would be on hand out the Dr. Collen Kaiser Permanente research awards to physicians who made significant contributions to medical literature and to the health of the community.

One of those Dr. Collen award winners is Dr. Alexander Flint, Neurology, Kaiser Permanente Redwood City whose research and work on strokes has led to changes in medical protocols, saving the lives of stroke patients and improving their recovery.

Dr. Collen leaves behind a tremendous legacy, as a pioneer in the field of medical informatics and as a founder one of the largest clinical research enterprises in this country, Kaiser Permanente’s Division of Research”, said Flint. “The entire research community at Kaiser Permanente mourns his passing.”

Flint worked with the Division of Research, where the anonymized medical records of thousands of past and present Kaiser Permanente members, to give him data needed to make a simple change in stroke patient care.

By giving the patient a generic, effective and low-cost cholesterol-lowering statin at the onset reduces mortality and enhances recovery in both ischemic and hemorrhagic stroke.

Collen himself had some medical firsts: he was one of the first doctors in the country to administer the new wonder drug penicillin to a civilian during World War II. When most of the penicillin supplies were being shipped to soldiers fighting overseas, Collen was able to get one dose and give it to a Kaiser Shipyard worker suffering from pneumonia. Collen said the man’s recovery was miraculous.

In 1948, Collen was one of the seven founding members of The Permanente Medical Group, which are the physicians of Kaiser Permanente.

Before attending medical school in Minnesota, Collen was an electrical engineering student. He revived that interest in the 1960s, putting standardized medical exam data on large mainframe computers using rudimentary punch cards.

That system has grown to become KPHealthConnect, where the medical records of 14 million past and present members can be mined for information on diseases like heart conditions and diabetes. The data gave rise to the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research in Oakland, which Collen led and made into the largest non-university research institution in the United States.

“Fifty years ago he could see the power of technology, the importance of the Division of Research and the need for physician leadership in health care,” said Dr. Robert Pearl, CEO and executive director of The Permanente Medical Group. “His career in TPMG spanned seven decades, and his contributions will live on forever.”

Collen retired as a medical doctor at 70, but continued consulting for Kaiser Permanente for 30 years. He wrote the definitive book on computers and medicine.

“When you met him, you knew that you had just met someone who had changed the world and helped others do the same,” said Smarr.


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