Bringing Medical E-Record Keeping to Canada

June 3, 2013

“It has been fun,” now-retired physician Dr. Donald Studney, one of the Institute’s earliest graduates, says as he looks back on a career that spanned from clinical practice to biomedical and clinical engineering. “I could honestly say that there was not a day when I could not wait to get to work.”

Having come to the Institute in 1963 to work with Norman Moody and Llewellyn Thomas, Dr. Studney exited the newly created Institute of Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering with an MASc in electrical engineering.

“It was an exciting time,” says Dr. Studney of the master’s research he pursued. “I wanted to do circuits and Norman Moody was the guy.”

Studney and Moody studied very high speed, nanosecond pulse transformers. Transformers of the time were limited in frequency response, but through their experimentation, Studney and Moody were able to give transformers the added ability to act like a radio transmission line, enabling high frequencies and very fast pulses.

“We just kind of invented the subject,” he says, noting the collaborative spirit that existed at the Institute of Biomedical Electronics, as it was known then.

After his graduation, Dr. Studney’s career took an unexpected turn. “I was going to do a PhD with Llewellyn Thomas, who was doing the most exciting research, and was co-director of the Institute,” relates Studney, who refers to Llewellyn Thomas, one of IBBME’s foremost creators, as the “original MD engineer.”

The move wasn’t necessarily straightforward, recalls Studney. “At that time, Engineering was the King. Medicine was the backwater,” although “Tommy,” as Dr. Studney calls his former mentor, Lllwellyn Thomas, was supportive of the switch.

Studney “walked across the street” and enrolled in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto, where he earned a Medical degree before taking a prestigious fellowship in internal medicine and computer science at Boston’s Massachusetts General under Octo Barnett.

“My [team’s] project was to develop a completely computerized medicine records,” he says. The records were based on a special computer language invented at Massachusetts General known as MUMPS. “It would have been 1975,” recalls Studney. The electronic system, (called COSTAR for COmputerized Ambulatory Record) was enabled to chart all aspects of ambulatory medicine – years before the first personal computer was even invented. The OB and prenatal modules were Studney’s particular assignment.

But Dr. Studney’s group soon realized they had created something with a much greater potential reach. “As soon as we did that we realized we could do computerized quality assurance programs,” he says.

Post-fellowship, Studney received a scholarship and an assistant professor post at UBC, where Dr. Studney joined the Faculty of Medicine and became an a Geographical Full-Time staff and Clinician.

He set up a computer research program that brought the technology he helped develop from Massachusetts General to UBC and into private clinics, essentially instituting the first fully computerized big medical clinic in Canada, first at the Caledonian Clinic and then at the Seymour Clinic.

“And it worked. It went live in 1977,” he says.

“I loved problem solving with people and medicine,” Studney says of his career path. “Internal medicine is just another form of engineering in that you apply first principles.”

The impact of Dr. Studney’s innovations, his application of engineering and medicine, is now everywhere evident – from the smart phones and tablets that are changing operating rooms and giving patients tools to self-manage chronic diseases.

Dr. Studney himself sees his labours in action. “I’m a patient at the Seymour clinic now and my record is stored in COSTAR. I’m now on the receiving end of my efforts. I’ve come full circle.”