Turning Data into Wisdom

Major gift establishes new Harvard Medical School Professorship focused on IT innovation

John Halamka, M.D., and Ben Zhou, M.D.Ben Zhou, M.D., recalls attending health care information technology (IT) forums around the world. Over two decades, he was always captivated by the same keynote speaker: John Halamka, M.D., M.S., chief information officer of the Beth Israel Deaconess System. For years, Zhou and Halamka continually crossed paths at various conferences; they eventually collaborated, and ultimately, they became close friends and travel companions. To date, Zhou and Halamka have worked to improve health care IT systems in nearly every region of China. Zhou’s immense gratitude for their partnership led him to facilitate a transformational gift of $3.3 million to BIDMC to establish an endowed professorship in honor of Halamka. This remarkable gift, from prestigious private equity and consulting firm HAVY International, which specializes in health care and civil engineering, created the International Healthcare Innovation Professorship at Harvard Medical School. His new role will allow Halamka to travel to any country and help implement technology to enhance the quality and safety of its care. “This incredible gift will empower BIDMC and HAVY to make a tremendous impact on patients and societies across the globe,” says Halamka.

The greatest development in the IT field over the past decade has been the effort to analyze big data. In medicine, this data includes patient demographics, medical history, diagnostic results, and treatment information. “When we talk about evidence-based medicine in IT, our goal is turning all this data into wisdom,” says Zhou, who serves as a trusted advisor for the Chinese Ministries of Health and Technology. In China, patients have the choice of receiving traditional Eastern care or Western diagnostics and treatments. Halamka and Zhou’s aim is not to change that; rather, they seek to use technology to streamline care. “We want physicians around the world to have data about their patients at their fingertips so they are equipped to make the best possible decisions about their care,” says Zhou.

The professorship will establish a two-way, or bi-directional, exchange of information. “All countries can and should learn from each other,” says Halamka, citing the U.S.’s lack of a national identifier to coordinate care and distinguish among patients with the same name. The cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and others in China solved this issue by providing each of their multi-million inhabitants with a medical identity card—which Halamka notes is a key lesson for the U.S. In China, Zhou and Halamka are working to promote innovation through integrated networks and mobile health technologies. They hope to use these approaches to unify electronic health record (EHR) software in China, which is currently different in every hospital. Having developed the first hospital EHR in 1985, BIDMC is well poised to help.

Zhou was immersed in medicine at an early age—his mother is a cardiologist and his father, a surgeon. In 1972 Zhou’s father, Dr. Chou Kuan-han, a general surgeon and a leading acupuncturist, was part of the first official U.S. medical delegation from China. In addition to visiting the president in the White House, Kuan-han had a life-changing exchange with Harvard and Beth Israel Hospital leaders and faculty members. Kuan-han then decided to focus on cardiovascular and thoracic surgery—influenced by Paul White, M.D., and E. Grey Dimond, M.D.—and went on to perform Peking University’s first open heart and thoracic operation. “I deeply admire my father, who helped countless patients,” says Zhou. Having always been passionate about technology, Zhou focused his career on bringing innovation to health care. After earning degrees in computer science and medicine, he held a number of management, consulting, and executive roles in academia and industry. Today, he is president of HAVY, which is a primary partner of Harvard Medical School in its global programs in China. By playing a key role in this incredible gift to BIDMC, Zhou is following in his father’s footsteps to influence significant change in medicine.

“John’s teachings will have a ripple effect,” says Zhou. “All these people who learn from him will continue to teach others.” Adds Halamka: “With this extraordinary gift, HAVY and Ben will profoundly improve patient outcomes around the world.”

This incredible gift will empower BIDMC and HAVY to make a tremendous impact on patients and societies across the globe
John Halamka, M.D.
Chief Information Officer