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The Technology of Care

Dr. Charles Safran ’69 has spent most of his career devoted to solving one problem: how to improve patient care by integrating technology into everyday clinical practice. Chief of the Division of Clinical Informatics at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, Safran was instrumental in establishing the 40-year old field of the clinical informatics, which includes electronic health records, telemedicine, and other communication and information technologies. Still, he humbly says he was “in the right place at the right time”: Beth Israel was among the first in the world to use technology to improve the quality of medical care and teaching, augment the patient-doctor relationship, and facilitate research.

Safran arrived at Beth Israel after a “seven year detour” through the Tufts University School of Medicine. With bachelor and master degrees in mathematical logic from Tufts, Safran had been working at MIT, applying artificial intelligence to medical decision-making. While part of medicine’s appeal was working with patients and families, Safran seized a greater challenge.

“I thought to myself, ‘There are 500 people in this building, but 300 million on the other side of these walls. I could be helping hundreds of thousands of patients at the same time.”

Safran was instrumental in developing and deploying clinical computing systems at not only Beth Israel but also Brigham & Women’s Hospital, designing and organizing the interface between clinicians and users. His work earned him the 2014 Morris F. Collen Award for Excellence in Biomedical Informatics, the highest honor given by the American College of Medical Informatics.

Safran ultimately sees his work in a pragmatic framework asking: “We have about 200,000 practicing doctors, and about 300 million Americans. How can people get all the care they need, when they need it? And how can we use technology to improve how we care for folks?”

Recognizing the major role that clinical informatics plays in health care today, the American Board of Medical Specialties has recently created a medical sub-specialty for the field, under preventive medicine. Safran explains that the field is rapidly growing—medical schools are introducing informatics into the curriculum, upwards of 1,000 people have passed their boards in clinical informatics, and about 20 hospitals nationwide have clinical informatics training.

To Safran, the use of computers in medical decision-making is a powerful tool. That technology can truly change health care, however, is transformative: “It’s about enabling people to be participants in their own care. The world has democratized knowledge, and we now have tools to help people that we didn’t have before.”