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2017 Director's Letter

Transforming Health Care Research Through the Decades

More than 70 years ago, Morris F. Collen, MD, the founder of the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research, published his first peer-reviewed article. It was 1946 and he looked at aspirin's analgesic effects on pain. I think if Dr. Collen were still with us, he’d be gratified at how far Kaiser Permanente research has come.  As we look back on 2017 in this year’s Annual Report it’s worth noting what has—and hasn’t—changed in what we do.

Morrie was instrumental in developing the first Automated Multiphasic Examinations for Kaiser Permanente. In the 1960s when the screening tests first began, we used punch cards and mainframe computers to record patient health data.

Recognizing the importance of those first multiphasic exams, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History this past year took ownership of some of those early punch cards to help share an important part of our country’s health care history.

Ted Van Brunt, an early director of DOR and supervisor of the multiphasic exams, passed away in 2017 and unfortunately never had a chance to see that momentous hand-over take place.

In the decades since the multiphasic exams were started, we’ve advanced to where we are now with bioinformatics, biobanks, and genomics — vast amounts of data to be parsed and understood, nearly at the blink of an eye.

And change doesn’t just come in the form of technology. We’re also pioneering a new way to leverage Kaiser Permanente research to help clinicians care for our members.

This year we launched the Physician Researcher Program: six clinicians given an opportunity, thanks to support from The Permanente Medical Group, to spend a portion of their time focusing on research. With the help of DOR researchers and staff, these inaugural physician researchers are devoting 20 to 40 percent of their time to research projects that are designed to systematically evaluate clinical care. They are expected to implement what they’ve found across Kaiser Permanente Northern California.

Part of our job is to adapt and look into the future: Where do we see ourselves when it comes to having a role for our members, physicians, and hospitals? 

And regardless of what we see in our crystal ball, what hasn’t changed is our goal: to do research that helps Kaiser Permanente become even better at delivering care, and society to understand and foster health.

We’ll continue to build on Dr. Collen’s vision in clinical informatics, and while it may not be looking at aspirin anymore, what we do next will be even more important.

Warm regards,


Tracy A. Lieu, MD, MPH
Director, Division of Research