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Of Rings and Things

November 28, 2010
by Mark Hagland, Editor-in-Chief
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Turning to the Music World for a Sense of Perspective when Challenges are Operatic in Scope
Mark Hagland
Mark Hagland

I'll never forget August 1987, the first time I ever experienced Richard Wagner's “The Ring of the Niebelung,” in festival format in Seattle. I had been very intimidated by this gargantuan work, which encompasses four operas and more than 16 hours of music. Knitting together five different Nordic and Germanic mythic sagas, the German composer created a music drama (premiered as a cycle in 1876, in a special theater that was purpose-built, no less) that was so audacious in its conception that no one had ever tried to develop anything on so grand a scale before, and in fact no one has since, either.


What's more, the Ring is incredibly complex, musically, dramatically, and intellectually. And it does have certain longueurs-passages that are less than sparkling. Yet its ecstatic moments are many; and when, at the end of the fourth opera, I saw the heroine Brünnhilde ride her horse into the flames of the hero Siegfried's funeral pyre, and saw the world washed by fire and flood, and heard all the main musical themes of the tetralogy crashing against each other in waves of glorious sound, I had one of the peak experiences of my life. And it only took Wagner 26 years to complete that four-part cycle!

Indeed, the story behind the creation of the Ring involves an operatic odyssey in itself. Yet somehow, Wagner (who was a horrible person, despite his amazing music) persevered, and got the thing done-and ultimately created one of the most magnificent works in Western music.

Similar feats abound, both on the personal and group-effort levels. Think of Edison and the telephone, the building of the Golden Gate Bridge, the making of Gone with the Wind, the climbing of Mt. Everest, or John Muir's campaign to create what is now Yosemite National Park. All the great creators, inventors, strivers, who have given humanity artistic, cultural, technological, and humanitarian achievements have had to overcome tremendous obstacles, and have also had to be strategic about how to get where they needed to be.

Perhaps it's a stretch to compare all those situations to the one we face right now in the healthcare IT sector. For one thing, we're talking here about a whole industry moving forward rather than about individual, or even small-group, accomplishments. Yet when it comes down to it, transforming our healthcare system from an inefficient, paper-based, opaque system to one that offers the highest-quality care, and is highly efficient, transparent, and accountable, will end up being an achievement of massive proportions, one that will require not only tremendous effort and energy, but also great ingenuity.

Fortunately, we are blessed in our field with a prodigious number of ingenious, highly capable, energetic people. The longer I work in healthcare publishing, the more admiring I am of the healthcare leaders and professionals I've had the privilege to interact with. And though I'm sure there are days in the life of every healthcare IT professional and clinician leader when the road forward (towards meaningful use, healthcare reform implementation, clinical transformation, etc.) seems like an impossible one, I know that the many leaders in this field are finding points of inspiration to keep them going.

So, OK, only a few of us will ever fly a plane around the world solo, or decode the human genome, or write a 16-hour operatic cycle with some of the most magnificent music ever created; but when times are toughest, I like to think that we can find examples out in the wider world to help inspire us forward.

Mark Hagland, Editor-in-Chief Healthcare Informatics 2010 December;27(12):8