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What's up with this doc? Oh, a lot

Morris Collen, 95, earned his degree in the days before penicillin. He has a long resume, but it's his driver's license he's most proud of.

January 03, 2009|Maria L. La Ganga

OAKLAND — Morris F. Collen, M.D., is a pioneer in harnessing the vast power of computers to improve healthcare. He is hip-deep in studying the ways that prescription drugs could interact and harm the elderly. He's hard at work on his sixth book.

But he just might be most proud of his brand new driver's license.

"Can I show you something you'll never see again?" Collen asks, reaching for his well-used billfold. He pulls out the rectangle of pedestrian plastic. He points to the date of birth: 11-12-13. He points to the expiration date: 11-12-13. He grins.

"The one is in the 20th century," he says, tickled still. "The other is in the 21st century. That represents 100 years. When I looked at that, I said, 'My God, that's probably the only one in the country.' "

Why does a 95-year-old need a license, one that's just been re-upped for another five years? So he can drive to work, of course.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, January 06, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Dr. Morris Collen: An article in Saturday's Section A about 95-year-old doctor Morris Collen said that when he earned his medical degree in 1939, penicillin had yet to be discovered. Penicillin was discovered in 1928, but no one was successfully treated with it until 1942.

Collen is part of an elite fraternity -- above and beyond his 11-page resume with its 193 publications and his place as one of Kaiser Permanente's founding physicians.

Nonagenarians make up less than one quarter of 1% of California drivers. Less than one third of 1% of Americans age 95 and above work for compensation. It is difficult to discern how many work for free, and harder still to figure out how many work and drive. When Collen earned his bachelor's degree in electrical engineering in 1934, the first computer was a dozen years in the future. When he earned his medical degree five years later, penicillin had yet to be discovered.

He and Bobbie Diner wed in secret and lived apart for two years, because back in 1937 some hospitals fired nurses for marrying. Mandatory retirement was legal when Collen hit 70, so he stepped down as head of Kaiser Permanente's Division of Research and has consulted -- gratis -- for a generation since.

The healthcare giant is happy Collen does.

"He's doing cutting-edge research on information technology and computers," says Robert Pearl, M.D., chief executive of The Permanente Medical Group. "He's a systems thinker, a technologic thinker. He's unique for a 45-year-old. He's really unique for a 95-year-old."

For his part, Collen is happy to pile into his 10-year-old Oldsmobile Intrigue, complete with duct tape on the right rear window, and head to the Oakland-based Division of Research every Wednesday morning.

It is an 18-mile commute from his cramped (he calls it "efficient") unit at Sunrise Assisted Living of Walnut Creek. He spends a lot of the drive in the fast lane, zipping along at just over the speed limit.

"I do not ask for pay from KP because I want to be free to do whatever I want to do," he said in a recent e-mail -- his favorite mode of communication. "I do what I do because I love it, and because it helps to keep the marbles rolling in my head!"

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Seven men and one woman sit around a table in a windowless gray meeting room in downtown Oakland on a Wednesday morning in November. On the wall is a giant banner celebrating the "Morris F. Collen, M.D. Research Library and Conference Center."

"Dr. Morris Collen continues to work at the Division of Research with Principal Investigator Joe Terdiman in development of the National Research Data Base," the banner says. "The project is testing and evaluating data mining methods for detecting and monitoring adverse events that occur in patient healthcare."

When the database is complete, it could house data on nearly 29 million Kaiser Permanente patients past and present, including some electronic records going back 40 years. There will be federal mortality data and census information.

Terdiman, whom Collen hired in the 1960s and has worked with ever since, calls it a kind of "one-stop shopping" for researchers.

Collen developed Kaiser's very first database in the 1960s, a repository of electronic medical records that also was mined for research purposes. It was a time when information was collected on punch cards and computers took up entire rooms.

He was the catalyst for this latest project, which Kaiser is working on with IBM, and designed several studies to be carried out beginning in 2009 with the newly compiled data.

One in particular is near and dear to his statin-assisted heart: figuring out how elderly patients are affected by the interaction of multiple drugs.

"Every decade you add another pill," says Collen, who takes eight medications every day. "So by the ninth decade, you're taking about nine pills. And I used to think, gee, if I took all those nine pills and threw them into a hot cup of coffee, what would happen?

"And here I throw them into my stomach, with hydrochloric acid," he continues. "Parke-Davis and each of them studies their own drugs. They don't study the others."

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