Tom Ferguson, MD: A Pioneer in Consumer Health Informatics, Dies at 62

Bill Silberg


Many of us have spent the last decade or so trying to figure out how to use the Internet as an "online health" tool, hoping to help professionals and consumers learn more efficiently; communicate more effectively; and, ultimately, live longer and healthier lives. Just about all of us got there long after Tom Ferguson, MD, did.

Tom died in Austin, Texas, on April 14, 2006 at age 62, after a long battle with multiple myeloma. He was a prolific author, researcher, and educator. He started writing about medical consumers more than a quarter of a century ago, arguing that informed self-care was a jumping-off point for better health and made for a richer, fairer, if nontraditional, partnership between physicians and their patients. He saw the value of online information tools 20 years ago, when many of us were still pushing pencils around, and spent much of his last 2 decades promoting the Internet and related digital tools as exciting means to healthier ends.

According to his obituary in the Austin American-Statesman, Tom followed his own philosophy in dealing for 15 years with multiple myeloma, surviving well beyond expectations.[1] "He relentlessly pursued strategies for both self-care and the newest research and experimental practices for controlling this aggressive cancer," the newspaper noted. The newspaper also stated, "During that time, between relapses and debilitating treatments, he led a migration of medical consumer information to the internet, lectured widely on the emerging field of 'health informatics,' and earned a global reputation as a true innovator and pioneer in the field."

Tom's publishing career was highly varied, including a stint as health and medical editor for the Whole Earth Catalog. He also established a journal called Medical Self Care, which he edited from 1975 to 1989. In 1998, he became editor and publisher of The Ferguson Report, a consumer health informatics newsletter that many of us looked forward to receiving and reading regularly. He also was author or co-author of a dozen books.

As a graduate of Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Connecticut, Tom's academic career included appointments, such as senior associate at Harvard's Center for Clinical Computing, Boston, Massachusetts; adjunct associate professor of health informatics at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston; and adjunct faculty member at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Medical Center, Little Rock, Arkansas. In addition, he was a senior research fellow at the Pew Internet & American Life Project.[2]

I was fortunate enough to have worked with Tom a few times during my career, mostly in the earlier days of the Internet health boom. Thanks to his enormous intellectual capacity, open nature, and plain-speaking interest in helping people live better lives, he was able to cut through the smoke and snake oil that some online health information merchants were peddling and offer context, insight, and wisdom. He tried his best to help more than a few of us do the same over the years, even succeeding a little bit here and there. Fortunately, he stuck with that mission -- teaching and caring -- until the end.

Tom never had a medical practice. Self-deprecating as always, he told his wife, according to his obituary in The New York Times, that by not practicing clinical medicine, he had saved hundreds of lives.[2] Perhaps. However, I don't think that it's overstating the case to say that he improved or even saved many, many more lives by the sort of "medicine" that he did practice -- prescribing a lifelong dose of education, learning and self-awareness, and responsibility for one's health.

My fondest memories of working with Tom date to early 1998, when I asked him to write the lead editorial for the computers in medicine theme issue of JAMA that I edited along with a valued colleague, Margaret Winker, MD.[3] I knew that Tom would jump at the chance for such a platform for his views, given the journal's stature and visibility; what I wasn't so sure of was whether my editor, George D. Lundberg, MD, would be quite so enthusiastic.

George was a great admirer of Tom's, but because an editorial, by definition, speaks for the editor and because Tom's views in those days were more than a little pioneering and provocative, I didn't know whether I could satisfy both and keep my job and my sanity. I needn't have worried. We cordially and professionally negotiated a strongly worded editorial that pushed the Internet as a valuable medium for professional and consumer health education, tweaked the slow movers in medicine a bit, acknowledged the challenges, but was highly optimistic and provocatively visionary -- like Tom.

Readers are encouraged to respond to George Lundberg, MD, Editor of MedGenMed, for the editor's eye only or for possible publication via email:


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