Editor's Notes: In a World of Single-Atom Computers, What's Astonishing Anymore?

April 10, 2013
(April Healthcare Informatics) What does the development of transistors from single atoms on the part of Australian and American physicians have in common with the important advances being made in patient care organizations every day by CMIOs? More perhaps than one might think.

A couple of months ago, I read an article that underscored for me the sense of astonishment many of us have very often these days with regard to the rapid advances taking place in technology and science.

Under the headline, “Physicists Create a Working Transistor from a Single Atom,” John Markoff reported on Feb. 19 in The New York Times that “Australian and American physicists have built a working transistor from a single phosphorus atom embedded in a silicon crystal.” Markoff told Times readers that “The group of physicists, based at the University of New South Wales and Purdue University, said they had laid the groundwork for a futuristic quantum computer that might one day function in a nanoscale world and would be orders of magnitude smaller and quicker than today’s silicon-based machines.”

Markoff’s article went on to note that, “In contrast to conventional computers that are based on transistors with distinct ‘on’ and ‘off’ or ‘1’ and ‘0’ states, quantum computers are built from devices called qubits that exploit the quirky properties of quantum mechanics. Unlike a transistor, a qubit can represent a multiplicity of values simultaneously. That might make it possible to factor large numbers more quickly than with conventional machines…Quantum computers might also make it possible to simulate molecular structures with great speed, an advance that holds promise for designing new drugs and other materials.”

I suppose that, these days, with a new technological or scientific breakthrough being announced virtually every week, it would be easy to take a jaded view of announcements such as this one; but I for one choose not to. Indeed, contemplating this particular breakthrough was mindboggling for me. The fact that scientists can now manipulate single atoms in an effective way not only is astonishing, but, I feel, should seem astonishing, to all of us.

By the same token, we are now, in the healthcare information technology world, seeing tremendous advances being made every day in patient care organizations across the country, as informaticists, clinical informaticists, clinicians, and others come together to tackle patient safety, care quality, efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and other problems that only a few years ago seemed utterly intractable. And whether it’s building evidence-based clinical decision support systems, creating patient-centered medical homes, or making progress on reducing avoidable readmissions, CMIOs—chief medical information or informatics officers, depending on individual organizations’ styling—and other medical informaticists are helping to lead progress at patient care organizations nationwide.

This issue’s cover story looks at some of the leaps that CMIOs are making in their development as organizational leaders; what’s clear is that it’s no longer enough to have one or two physicians in an organization who like to play with technology. Instead, CMIOs are being given more, and broader, responsibilities across a dizzying array of functional areas and processes. And that means that CEOs, CIOs, CMOs, other C-suite executives, and boards of directors, are having to invest more—both literally and figuratively—in their leadership-bound CMIOs.

So as the purchasers, payers, policymakers, and consumers of healthcare look for our industry to make quantum leaps forward in quality and cost-effectiveness in the coming years, let’s none of us take the contributions of CMIOs and their clinical informaticist colleagues for granted. Their work—like that of the scientists working on atomic computers—seems destined to help pave the way to the healthcare of the future.

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