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Loss of a pioneer in medical informatics: Dr Octo Barnett

Dr Octo BarnettAIDH was saddened to hear of the death of Dr Octo Barnett who died on June 30 at the age of 89. Dr Barnett was the founder and former Senior Scientific Director of the Laboratory of Computer Science (LCS) at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and was recognised world-wide as one of the founding fathers of Medical Informatics who pioneered the use of computers in patient care.

Dr Barnett studied mathematics, computer science, and chemistry at Vanderbilt University. He earned his MD from Harvard Medical School and completed his residency at the Brigham Hospital in Boston. Dr. Barnett and his wife, Sarah, also raised three sons: John, Andrew, and Robert.

Octo, as he was known, understood the needs and workflows of hospital staff and the possibilities and limitations of the technology. As one of the first to speak the language of both programmers and physicians, he brought a valuable mix of skills that allowed medical informatics projects to go forward. In 1964, Dr. Barnett was recruited by MGH to head the Hospital Computer Project, an ambitious plan to implement a large hospital information system. From this project, the Laboratory of Computer Science was born. He remained the director of the lab until his retirement in 2012.

Although he described himself humbly as “just a country doctor,” Dr. Barnett altered the course of the practice of medicine when he suggested, in the 1950s, “We ought to try using time sharing computer systems to improve medical care.” He was co-developer of COSTAR, one of the nation’s first computerized electronic health records, and of DXplain, one of the best known, widely used diagnostic decision support systems.

The programming language known as Massachusetts General Hospital Utility Multi-Programming System (MUMPS), which remains in widespread use today as the foundation of numerous clinical systems, was invented in LCS under his leadership. He has authored numerous publications in medical informatics with subjects as diverse as electronic health records, medical education, knowledge access and decision support.

MUMPS was upgraded and renamed over the years to become “M” then Cache which is the underlying technology for the EPIC and TrakCare Electronic Medical Record systems.

Dr Barnett was a founding fellow and former president of the American College of Medical Informatics (ACMI) and received their Morris Collen Award of Excellence. He is also a founder and original member of the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA) and was an editor of Methods of Information in Medicine and Computers in Biomedical Research.

In an Australian connection, Dr Barnett’s son met and married an Australian. And during a visit to his family here in the 2000’s, we were fortunate to have Octo give an inspiring lecture on delivery of “Just In Time” clinical information to clinicians and informaticians at Eastern Health in Melbourne. He impressed all present with his great knowledge and humble nature. Dr Enrico Coiera recalls a Conference at Uluru in 2003 where Octo was serenaded by a didgeridoo player.

Octo Barnett is a true pioneer of Health Informatics and will be sorely missed by his friends and colleagues in the USA and across the world.

Edited from an email on the AMIA list as sent to Dr Enrico Coiera by Dr Shawn Murphy – PDR