For this issue of ComputingEdge, we interviewed Professor Harold Thimbleby who is an international computer scientist. Thimbleby has published over 600 peer reviewed papers and been invited to speak in over 30 countries. He is an ACM Distinguished Speaker. He works on making healthcare safer—especially since error is the third biggest killer after cancer and cardiovascular disease. Since computers are involved in every aspect of patient care, improving computers will improve everything and arguably help make healthcare safer more than any other intervention.
Thimbleby says that hardly anyone is doing any research in this area (let alone funding it), which makes it even more important. He has found ways to radically improve the safety of many medical devices, such as halving error rates. He is currently funded by See Change (M&RA-P), Scotland to write a book/film which he plans to have as dramatic an effect on patient safety as Ralph Nader’s Unsafe At Any Speed had on car safety. We asked Thimbleby about careers in healthcare technology.
ComputingEdge: What types of tech advances in the field of healthcare technology will see the most growth in the next several years?
Thimbleby: There are two answers here. One, consumer-led pressures will slowly cause healthcare to change. Whether we are patients, caregivers, or clinicians, all of us are driven to get the latest tech, and much of it is already way ahead of what healthcare provides. The widening gap between what healthcare does and what we expect it to do is putting pressure on everyone. Secondly, greater awareness of safety will drive improved quality. For example, cybersecurity attacks succeed because healthcare software engineering is inadequate, and software safety problems kill many people. One day we will recognize that the low quality of healthcare software is unethical and unacceptable. We will adopt quality software engineering standards, perhaps adopting aviation standards like DO-178C.
I like to say that aviation has standards like DO-178C because they know lives depend on getting software reliable. In healthcare, it is baffling—if not outrageous—why there are no comparable standards, let alone a plan to transition to better software engineering standards over the next few years.
ComputingEdge: What advice would you give college students to give them an advantage over the competition?
Thimbleby: It is very hard for employers to distinguish people who can really program from people who just say they can—and this is particularly true in healthcare where the employers can’t program themselves. Develop a portfolio or a dissertation that proves you are competent. Take along working systems you have developed. If you want jobs in healthcare, good awareness of the regulatory regime will help. In Europe, you need to know at least some of the ISO standards, and in the USA you need to know the FDA’s requirements. If you read documents like http://content.digital.nhs.uk/isce/publication/scci0129 you will probably be the only job candidate who has, and you can make yourself indispensable immediately!
If you are good at software engineering and working in healthcare you will be pretty much alone. You need a plan to survive and find a niche where you are able to do good work—that few colleagues will recognize.
ComputingEdge: If a graduate must begin work as an intern, freelancer, or independent contractor in the field of healthcare technology what are some tips for building a strong portfolio for presentation in possible future interviews?
Thimbleby: Take a course on presentation skills—develop real skills in a group that provides constructive criticism, led by a professional. Most people at university who run presentation skills just spread their prejudices, so do some homework. Find out what Steve Jobs did, and why it worked. Watch Nancy Duerte’s TED talk, read her books, and try out some of the ideas to find which work best for you. Once you’ve found your voice, your style, develop a two-minute video. Send it everywhere (even to your boss), with a note saying “I’m sure you’ve got two minutes to watch this….”
And read What Color is Your Parachute. Get the most recent edition. It’s very good.
ComputingEdge: Name one critical mistake for young graduates to avoid when starting their careers?
Thimbleby: Not spending enough time getting to know and making friends and allies higher up the organization.
ComputingEdge: Do you have any learning experiences you could share that could benefit those just starting out in their careers?
Thimbleby: I read Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Successful People when I started. I now recommend the book. Not everyone likes it, which is fine, but, if you don’t like it, I challenge you to have some better ideas. Read about reflective practice. Being successful might just happen by chance, but trying intentionally to solve problems in strategic ways is a useful gift, from jobs to playing sports to bringing up children, and even for looking after your old parents!
About Lori Cameron
The IEEE Computer Society’s Lori Cameron interviewed Thimbleby for this article. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to contribute to a future article on computing careers. Contact Thimbleby at email@example.com.