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Editor's Notes: In a World of Single-Atom Computers, What's Astonishing Anymore?

March 21, 2012
by Mark Hagland
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Meanwhile, in Healthcare, CMIOs Are Taking on Industry-Transforming Roles
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A couple of months ago, I read an article that underscored for me the sense of astonishment many of us have very often these days with regard to the rapid advances taking place in technology and science.

Under the headline, “Physicists Create a Working Transistor from a Single Atom,” John Markoff reported on Feb. 19 in The New York Times that “Australian and American physicists have built a working transistor from a single phosphorus atom embedded in a silicon crystal.” Markoff told Times readers that “The group of physicists, based at the University of New South Wales and Purdue University, said they had laid the groundwork for a futuristic quantum computer that might one day function in a nanoscale world and would be orders of magnitude smaller and quicker than today’s silicon-based machines.”

Markoff’s article went on to note that, “In contrast to conventional computers that are based on transistors with distinct ‘on’ and ‘off’ or ‘1’ and ‘0’ states, quantum computers are built from devices called qubits that exploit the quirky properties of quantum mechanics. Unlike a transistor, a qubit can represent a multiplicity of values simultaneously. That might make it possible to factor large numbers more quickly than with conventional machines…Quantum computers might also make it possible to simulate molecular structures with great speed, an advance that holds promise for designing new drugs and other materials.”

I suppose that, these days, with a new technological or scientific breakthrough being announced virtually every week, it would be easy to take a jaded view of announcements such as this one; but I for one choose not to. Indeed, contemplating this particular breakthrough was mindboggling for me. The fact that scientists can now manipulate single atoms in an effective way not only is astonishing, but, I feel, should seem astonishing, to all of us.

By the same token, we are now, in the healthcare information technology world, seeing tremendous advances being made every day in patient care organizations across the country, as informaticists, clinical informaticists, clinicians, and others come together to tackle patient safety, care quality, efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and other problems that only a few years ago seemed utterly intractable. And whether it’s building evidence-based clinical decision support systems, creating patient-centered medical homes, or making progress on reducing avoidable readmissions, CMIOs—chief medical information or informatics officers, depending on individual organizations’ styling—and other medical informaticists are helping to lead progress at patient care organizations nationwide.

This issue’s cover story looks at some of the leaps that CMIOs are making in their development as organizational leaders; what’s clear is that it’s no longer enough to have one or two physicians in an organization who like to play with technology. Instead, CMIOs are being given more, and broader, responsibilities across a dizzying array of functional areas and processes. And that means that CEOs, CIOs, CMOs, other C-suite executives, and boards of directors, are having to invest more—both literally and figuratively—in their leadership-bound CMIOs.

So as the purchasers, payers, policymakers, and consumers of healthcare look for our industry to make quantum leaps forward in quality and cost-effectiveness in the coming years, let’s none of us take the contributions of CMIOs and their clinical informaticist colleagues for granted. Their work—like that of the scientists working on atomic computers—seems destined to help pave the way to the healthcare of the future.




Like you, I have been delighted and astonished at the productivity and creativity of many CMIOs. Two decades ago, an Internist and CMIO named Ed was trying to improve the resident staff schedule. For those of you who haven't seen this problem, the essence is that there are usually literally hundreds of conflicts to address. The ultimate "fit" of the schedule is always imperfect.

Not content with the state of the practice, this CMIO discovered and deployed a genetic algorithm (GA) to create a schedule with a much, much better fit. He wasn't a math or computer genius. He bought the GA as a forty dollar plug-in that worked in Excel and Visual Basic. I suspect that he simply paid for it himself, since as you implied, the C-suite generally doesn't have a mechanism to encourage such innovation.

Yesterday, while returning from an unrelated two hour program on raising children with Dyslexia, I listened to a related and fascinating brief biography on Alan Turing, here: . The connection with CMIOs and your post here is clear. Innovators, entrepreneurs, and change agents often think differently. They literally process input in different parts of their brains using different methods. As a result, they are capable of advances that are complementary to their peers.

The innovations and astonishing clarity of their often amazing work is all-to-often overlooked, not recognized, and not translated into more broadly available improvements in healthcare delivery. Every year, I learn of new CMIOs at AMDIS and see their brilliant work.

In addition to being jaded by new technologies, the challenge of transforming organizations independent of the technologies is formidable. I am looking forward to reading this issue of Healthcare Informatics, and learning from the stories of the talented CMIOs you identified.

- The Radiolab show (link above) is only 23 minutes and tells a great story about life, culture, history and artificial intelligence.
- More about Alan Turing here: