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Barry Aaronson
Barry Aaronson, the chief medical informatics officer at Virginia Mason Medical Center, originally moved to Seattle to be closer to nature and mountains. (Photo courtesy of Barry Aaronson)

Like many of our Geeks of the Week, Barry Aaronson was drawn to Seattle by the nearby nature and mountains. A native of New York City, Aaronson moved west after college to get away from “pollution, crime and traffic,” as he put it.

“After arriving in Seattle, I spent almost every weekend with the Seattle Mountaineers climbing the major peaks in the state,” Aaronson said. “I also spent time getting rid of my New York accent, counting chromosomes from bone marrow transplant patients at Fred Hutch Cancer Research Center, and performing bone marrow transplants on mice at the University of Washington.”

Aaronson spent five years doing that before moving to Washington, D.C., to attend medical school at George Washington University.

“Even though I was thought of as the last person in the world to join the military, I got a haircut and joined the Army for their generous scholarship program,” he said, adding that after medical school, he did an internal medicine residency at Walter Reed Army Medical Center where he then served as chief resident and later a general internist.

Aaronson’s current career took root in 1997, when he was recruited to start the hospitalist program at Tacoma General Hospital, and two years later, the same type of program at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle.

“In 2003, I took a break from medicine for two years and lived in Padova, Italy, with my wife and son,” Aaronson said. “When we returned to Seattle (with a second son who was born there), I did a National Library of Medicine Postdoctoral Fellowship in Clinical Informatics at the University of Washington. After my fellowship, I returned to Virginia Mason to work half-time as a hospitalist and half-time as a clinical informaticist.”

Aaronson became board-certified in clinical informatics — the newest medical specialty — in 2013 and in 2016 became the chief medical informatics officer at Virginia Mason where he continues to work as both a hospitalist and informaticist.

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Barry Aaronson:

What do you do, and why do you do it? “I spend half my time as a hospitalist and the other half of my time as the chief medical informatics officer at Virginia Mason. I love taking care of hospital patients and figuring things out about their case that no one else has. I love teaching our internal medicine residents and I love informatics, because health information technology is now one of the most powerful ways to improve quality and patient safety.”

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? “A common misconception is that working on electronic medical records (EMR) is mostly about the ‘records.’ That sounds boring since records are not thought of as something directly related to patient care. However, working on EMRs is actually sexy, because they are the main tool health care workers use to care for patients. Everything we do now in medicine involves computers. One of the best ways to improve the quality of care and to improve patient safety is through enhancing the functionality and usability of these EMR computer systems. The enhancements we make benefit all patients and providers within our system, so that makes this work particularly rewarding to me.”

Where do you find your inspiration? “From people like Dr. Don Berwick, president emeritus and senior fellow at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, and one of the fathers of patient safety. I also receive inspiration from patients I’ve seen who could have received better care if we had better health information technology in place.”

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? “I would have said my iPhone until recently, but now it is my electric bicycle instead. (See “best gadget ever” answer below.)”

Barry Aaronson office
A panoramic view of Seattle from Barry Aaronson’s workspace. (Photo courtesy of Barry Aaronson)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? “My informatics workspace is a corner office on the 15th floor of the Metro Building downtown. I used to have stellar views of downtown, Queen Anne, the Space Needle and Lake Union, but then they built two giant buildings right outside my window. Now, I mostly have a view of construction workers. I politely asked the workers to stop building once they reached the height of my office window. However, they refused and instead added 30 more floors just to spite me!

“When I see patients as a hospitalist, my workspace is the entire Virginia Mason Hospital. One thing I love about being a hospitalist is that I am in constant motion around the hospital, as I round from one patient to the next. I am rarely sedentary.”

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) “I try to avoid non-productive time-sinks, such as TV (except for seasons one through four of ‘House of Cards’) and instead, try to get stuff done whenever possible. For instance, I am writing this on a long plane trip instead of watching movies, like most people. Unfortunately, it ends up, I keep looking at their screens instead of working, so I end up watching the movies anyway except without sound!”

Mac, Windows or Linux? “Used to be Windows, then I got sick of reinstalling, rebooting, editing INI files, finding drivers, etc., so I switched to Mac and never looked back. Unfortunately, I still have to use Windows at work, but Windows has gotten better, so now I don’t curse at it as profusely as often. And when I do have a problem with my Windows computer at work, I get to call the Help Desk; now it’s someone else who gets to curse and pull their hair out trying to solve my computer problems.”

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? “I grew up watching Kirk so that’s an easy one. However, I do love using the Picard line, ‘Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.’ whenever someone asks me if I’d like tea.”

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? “Invisibility cloak is creepy, so not that. I can already get wherever I want to on my electric bike or by plane, so my choice is definitely the time machine. I would love to see tech of the future, and find out what stock to buy. I don’t think I would go back in time — it would be too dangerous, and there would be no good tech to see!”

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … “Create a company that helps catalyze, facilitate, and manage the transition of the EMR from a full-service system (front-end to back-end) to a primarily back-end transactional system. With this change, companies that do really well at the human computer interface front-end can interface with the EHR via APIs and compete with each other in an app store model (see SMART on FHIR as an example). This change would greatly improve the usability of the EMR, improve quality of care, patient safety, patient and provider satisfaction, while significantly reducing development cost. However, there are many barriers to this approach and that makes implementation of this model a very slow process. My company would help remove those barriers and enable rapid expansion of improved EHR functionality at a fraction of the cost of the current “propriety-locked-into-the-primary-EHR vendor-for-everything” model.”

I once waited in line for … “Portland’s Salt and Straw ice cream — amazing flavors! I also once waited in line, while sleeping in a lawn chair after a night on call, for the annual Glassy Baby factory reject sale. But I’ve never waited in line for an Apple product, and proud of it.”

Your role models: “Tom Payne, MD and chief medical informatics officer at the University of Washington, who was my mentor during my informatics fellowship. Not only is he super bright, but he is also a super nice person and great leader. Also, my father who taught me to never give up. He is 97 and, for the past 50 years, has been working, almost daily, to prove the infinitude of prime pairs.”

Greatest game in history: “Wow, that sets the bar pretty high. The right answer is probably chess, but for me, it is Scategories. It is very fun playing with my kids and parents, especially when my parents forget which letter the word is supposed to start with, and they come up with answers that are totally off the wall.”

Best gadget ever: “Electric bicycle! Love it so much that if I could keep only either this or my iPhone, I might pick the bike! Six miles to work takes 20 minutes door-to-door, and I can wear my work clothes for the ride. The bike will pay for itself after one year since I was able to give up my expensive parking spot. It’s fun (and obnoxious) to pass the spandex-clad racers while riding up hill.”

First computer: “A custom-built 286 PC from a hole-in-the-wall shop in Queens, N.Y., that sold only custom-built no-name PCs. It cost much less than name-brand PCs and was much more powerful.”

Current phone: “iPhone 7 Plus with a blue (but now looks black) Apple leather case and Beats Bluetooth earbuds. The phone is the one thing I like to always have the latest version of. Love the great camera and the great battery life.”

Favorite app: “The New York Times app. Love the writing and how much I learn from it every day. Downside is that now I read little else.”

Favorite cause: “Downtown Emergency Services Center in Seattle. They do a great job caring for the homeless in our city.”

Most important technology of 2016: “My son would say it was the hoverboard, especially since his has not yet caught fire. But I would say it was Alexa and the rapid expansion of AI into our homes.”

Most important technology of 2018: “Electric bikes! They will revolutionize transportation and save the planet! Some may consider it cheating in terms of biking, but it removes the barriers that prevent people from biking to work; the commute is twice as fast as conventional bike, and there is no need to change clothes upon arrival since you don’t get too sweaty while riding. But you still get good exercise.”

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: “Always remember that the work we do is about people first and technology second. The technology should always be solving a problem for people, and not be a tool looking for a job.”

Website: Barry Aaronson

Twitter: @barryaa

LinkedIn: Barry Aaronson

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