March 18, 2009
It is with great sorrow that we inform our alumni, friends and colleagues of the sudden death of Dr. Helmuth (Helly) Orthner on March 16, 2009. Having just held a celebration for Dr. Orthner’s retirement from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) this past December, his accomplishments are fresh in the minds of his friends and colleagues. There is neither time nor space to fully outline his many contributions to the field of health informatics locally, nationally, or even internationally, however, a few points are worth noting.
Dr. Orthner immigrated from Austria to the U.S. in 1967. He graduated from the Technical University of Munich (Germany) with a master’s degree in Electrical Engineering with a focus on technical communications. He joined the Department of Biomedical and Electronic Engineering at University of Pennsylvania (Penn) as a graduate student in the Fall 1967 and graduated with a PhD degree in 1973. He held faculty positions at George Washington University and the University of Utah prior to UAB.
Dr. Orthner joined the UAB faculty in 1998 with impressive credentials. He was often called the “Father of the Symposium on Computer Applications in Medical Care (SCAM-C)”, which he helped form in 1976. Most of you now know of this organization as the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA).
He worked at UAB for 10 years and during that time did much to further the national position and prestige of UAB’s Health Informatics Program. During his tenure as program director, more than 100 students were graduated from the program as it became an essential element of the Department of Health Services Administration and the School of Health Professions. He forged linkages within the community that supported both students and research. These partnerships included the UAB Emergency Department, the 1917 Clinic, Children’s Health System, and the Birmingham Regional EMS System.
Dr. Orthner’s research interests focused on the information infrastructure of the pre-hospital emergency medical environments. While at UAB, he worked on numerous research grants and contracts, with the most notable being the “Applications of Advanced Network Infrastructure for Health and Disaster Management” from the National Library of Medicine. This multi-year project filled his time for the last several years and enabled Dr. Orthner and his team to pursue communication technologies fully. He was proud of this contract and its diverse accomplishments.
All of these are important to mention but the accomplishments of his many students are the real legacy that Dr. Orthner leaves at UAB. Among some of these notable accomplishments include three graduates who went on to found their own informatics companies, the CIO of a national healthcare organization, the Director of Security for one of the largest “Blues” in the country, and several faculty members at prominent universities across the United States.
Dr. Orthner will be missed by his friends and colleagues. The field of medical informatics has lost one of its true pioneers.