A medical doctor, Collen was old enough, and started his career soon enough, that he was one of the first civilian doctors to use penicillin to treat a patient, in the early 1940s. That wasn’t his main contribution to the world, however: rather, as the founding director of the Kaiser Permanente’s Division of Research, the largest non-university medical research institute in the U.S., he developed multiphasic screening for Kaiser — using several medical tests to screen larger populations looking for disease and disease patterns, while they are still easily treatable. By the mid-1960s, Kaiser’s efforts in this area were considered the most sophisticated in the world. But Collen had one problem with the widespread testing: tracking all the results. In the early 1960s, Dr. Collen, who had a degree in electrical engineering in addition to his medical degree, pioneered the use of computers to track patient medical information: some of the earliest efforts at electronic medical records. Computers of the era were so primitive, the only way for Dr. Collen to effectively input the data was to use punch cards. Today, the American Medical Informatics Association is dedicated to the development and application of health information systems to support patient care. The AMIA’s annual Award of Excellence for outstanding contributions to the field is named the Morris F. Collen Medal.
After stepping down as the director of Kaiser’s Division of Research in 1979, Collen kept working there for decades, developing the National Research Database, where he worked to discover how multiple drugs interacted in the body, especially in elderly patients — work that meshed well with his view that it’s cheaper and easier to keep people healthy than to wait until they get diseases, and then treat them. And all along, computers can help track all the variables. Just this year, Clinical Informatics was recognized as an official medical subspecialty, and Collen is considered the field’s founder. Dr. Collen essentially never retired; on his 100th birthday, a symposium was held, including all of the living Morris Collen Medal recipients, in his honor. Dr. Collen gave a 20-minute talk to the attendees, “offering insight into our field,” said Dr. Charles Safran of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, who organized the event. “It was remarkable,” he said, “that he was teaching and guiding us even at that point.” Collen died at home from cancer on September 27, at 100.