March 20, 2001

Taking Linux to the doctor, with Ignacio Valdes

Author: JT Smith

- By Julie Bresnick -

Open Source people -
Hoping to save the medical industry with Open Source software,
Ignacio Valdes, programmer and M.D. extraordinaire, opts out of greed and into
salvation. For any medical student, free time is a rare and precious
commodity and Valdes chooses to use most of his to develop and maintain
LinuxMedNews and the Journal of Open Source Medical News.
"I have designated myself the medical Open Source cheerleader and
publicist," he says.

Three years into his residency in the psychiatry department at the
University of Texas, Houston, there is not enough time on his schedule
to manage a development project on his own, but with his experience
building and running his own company, Lifetime Software, he knows how important
marketing is. And he knows how most companies make the mistake of
devoting the majority of their resources to engineering instead. So he has
decided to solve both problems by brokering information about Open Source
efforts to build quality clinical computing software. This, he hopes, will help to
both publicize the products and foster a more efficient application of
engineering resources.

Valdes worked on Lifetime Software, a database consulting and software development firm, for three years during which his most notable achievement was Exercise Break, a program to help people de-stress and prevent Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. He sold Exercise Break to Hopkins
before entering medical school. Though he still receives a regular
royalty check for its sales, the business experience was the most valuable
byproduct of Lifetime Systems.

He says that when he wrote Exercise Break he was at the top of his
programming game.

"It had one of the first robust Windows timing algorithms that
didn't tax the CPU and could support multiple event scheduling in one day. I
think it is interesting because it was several years ahead of its time. Getting
multiple events to happen on-screen precisely at arbitrary times of day
was a difficult challenge in the world of Windows 3.1 API."

He spent two years writing it simultaneously for the DOS, Windows
and Macintosh platforms and internationalizing it for four languages,
all while crafting a science fiction novel on the side which he shopped
around to publishers who, though not willing to publish it, urged him
to submit any subsequent efforts.

But such productivity is not uncharacteristic of Valdes. Completing
medical school, building his own business, earning both a bachelor's and a master's degree in computer science, writing a book, all done before
the age of 36 (and all achieved within the state of Texas.)

To a bystander, medical school might seem like a rather abrupt
divergence for a developer who had earned prestige at such computing mainstay
institutions as IBM and Compaq (not to mention viability as an
independent player.) But to Valdes, who grew up discussing issues in the medical
industry at the dinner table with his father, a surgeon (now retired)
who young Valdes heard praised by his colleagues as a "doctor's doctor," he
knew that somehow it made sense. Indeed, once he survived medical school,
eased into his residency and met the woman of his dreams, it all became
perfectly clear.

"When I started doing software I always looked at clinical computing
software for my dad. And I actually did some things in his office that
were, of course, miserable failures," laughs Valdes, tracing his path with
the benefit of hindsight, "and I had the 'greed is good' mentality for a
while. I thought, we'll make this great clinical computing software and sell
it to these dumb doctors and make a jillion dollars. Well, there's a counter,
somewhere in the world, of how many people have that idea and pursue it
and fail. The decades are littered with people who had that idea and it's
too big of a task to be accomplished with traditional software techniques.

"The only way that you can make money by doing it is pooling
engineering resources. I actually made a go at writing clinical computing software
with some friends of mine, some real good programmers and smart people from
IBM and we quickly concluded that you need several million dollars and
several years to create something that's barely ready for the street. By that
time you'd be broke and you wouldn't have any money to market it and you're
going up against thousands of competitors, all of which are incompatible with
one another. There's just been a horrific amount of engineering
duplication in the service of greed.

"I'm not strictly opposed to greed but it's not served medicine well
at all. Right now the landscape for medical computing software is one of
great fragmentation. The couple of acceptable packages that are out there
are completely incompatible with one another. HL7 (Health Level Seven), which is a computing
standard for health care) is helpful but the reality is that it's not
revolutionary in any sense, and the beauty of Open Source is that the
software is the standard. You don't need to have a committee of
standard writers, you've got the code, that is the standard.", which is visually modeled after Slashdot and runs Squishdot on Zope, gets about 4,000 page views
per week. Valdes, a.k.a. "Saint" on LinuxMedNews, has a good time writing for it. Cindy's page
is his bio in the form of a letter from his Chihuahua, Cindy, who he
declares to be a co-worker. It is a more casual approach, more
entertaining and approachable than the newly launched Journal of Open Source Medical News which was inspired more by the feel of a traditional medical journal than that of a daily newspaper. But certainly the latter is necessary to truly infiltrate the ranks.

Both publications are hosted at and both are
basically maintained by Valdes alone, though he is adamant about acknowledging the
help of frequent contributors like Andrew Ho, Jim
, and Tim Cook of FreePM
who seems to always send Valdes dirty jokes when he most needs them.

Because I can hardly imagine going to work and getting my hair cut on
the same day, I asked Valdes to send me a picture of himself. I wanted to
see how such a varied list of achievement and activity manifested on the
human body. I expected a man who can do his residency, set
a missionary hospital in rural Guatemala up with a computer network
and maintain two publications somewhat simultaneously to look red-eyed and
unkempt, maybe a little mad. I can't really see his face in the
picture. In it he is sitting on the floor amidst a mess of papers, computer
parts and wires, by comparison, miraculously transforms my apartment into a study
on minimalism. His Chihuahua is the one sitting in the desk chair. The
photo catches Valdes as he is turning to let Cindy lick his face and behold,
the bearded Valdes is, even among the chaos, wearing a smile. Saint indeed.

About Ignacio Valdes

First computer: An Amdahl mainframe running Wylbur with 1200 baud,
green screen terminals, command line interface only. Fantastic!

Place of birth: Dublin, Georgia, but "moved to Texas as fast as (he)

Why psychiatry: "Because my dad was a surgeon and my mother a
psychologist. I split the difference and chose psychiatry.",p>Hobbies: "Pet my Chihuahua Cindy, do home improvement and restore
antique vehicles. I've got a 1964 Corvair Monza that I've got going right now."

Favorite book: The Mote in God's Eye, by Larry Niven and Jerry

Most excited about: "My wife and my first baby is due in April."

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