Most recently, we've placed the hero's mantle on a group of highly skilled and daring soldiers who dropped into a walled compound in a far-off land and shot a very bad man in the head. We hope their heroic actions will save some lives in times to come.
But who can argue that the armies of programmers, who, over the past three decades, have labored to develop the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department’s electronic health-record system, haven't saved thousands of veterans' lives from preventable medical errors? That’s given the efficacy of the VA’s VistA EHR system, as analyzed by the Center for Information Technology Leadership.
One of the visionaries and founding fathers of the health IT program at the VA in 1977 was Joseph Timothy "Ted" O’Neill, who died in March at the age of 79.
Tom Munnecke, one of the early VA programmers, put together the video tribute to O’Neill.
Most of the footage consists of interviews taken during a 2008 reunion of those often embattled early VA programmers who called themselves the Hardhats. They joined a clandestine EHR development effort within the VA called the Underground Railroad.
An online history of the Hardhats explains O’Neill’s contributions.
"The story begins with the ANSI Standardization of MUMPS," according to the site. "That standardization, in 1977, was blessed by a federal agency then called the National Bureau of Standards. Two key players in this blessing at NBS were Joseph (Ted) O'Neill and Marty Johnson. Late in 1977, they moved into a small office called `CASS’ (Computer Assisted System Staff") within the VA's Department of Medicine and Surgery. There, they had the vision that MUMPS could be brought into the VA hospitals nationwide … ."
"Marty and Ted soon began locating enterprising computerniks within the VA infrastructure, (one of them being Munnecke)," the history continues. “Through various machinations, CASS was able to provide computer resources to several sites, often with some funding from the sites themselves. Ted O'Neill recalled a `war room’ atmosphere as midnight drew near on the last night of the fiscal year, September 30, 1978. Minute by minute, he `tracked every penny’ as it became available from VA Central Office reserves. Ted estimated he assigned $5,000,000 worth of `spend it or lose it’ money to computer purchases that night.”
O’Neill was fired in 1979 by that same VA central office trying to stamp out the decentralized development of the VA's EHR. He was a career casualty in what turned out to be a losing war waged against VA employees by central VA bureaucrats desperately trying to maintain control over software development within the organization.
"Ted went from being a very successful federal employee to being completely out of work," Munnecke said. "He was a cab driver and school bus driver and real-estate agent, and he never recovered from the witch hunt they put him through. It was devastating for him and his family. The VA has never apologized for what they did to Ted and never recognized his contribution."
"Ted’s contribution was to see MUMPS as something worthy of pulling out of a lab at Mass. General (where the venerable computer language was created) and into an open, standardized, public-domain format," Munnecke said. "This was open source before the term was even known."
There have been several truly fine healthcare IT systems developed by private-sector workers of the same era.
But this is about one hero—Ted O’Neill—a former public employee.