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Homer Warner, 90; used computers to diagnose illness

Dr. Warner with his first computer. He translated medical knowledge ­so that computers could assist working doctors.

Homer Warner Center for Informatics Research

Dr. Warner with his first computer. He translated medical knowledge ­so that computers could assist working doctors.

NEW YORK — Homer R. Warner, a physiologist whose research fusing engineering and medicine helped introduce computer analysis to diagnosing illnesses, died Nov. 30 in Salt Lake City. He was 90.

The cause was complications of pancreatitis, said his son Homer Jr.

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Dr. Warner was a pioneer in a field that has come to be known as medical informatics, which ­involves the use of computers to make decisions about patient care.

In the 1950s, as director of the cardiovascular laboratory at the Latter-day Saints Hospital (now part of Intermountain Health Care) in Salt Lake City, he began thinking of the cardiovascular system not as a doctor would but as an engineer would, considering it in terms of fluid mechanics, in which blood is transferred from the heart to the body through tubes with specific compliance and resistive properties.

In this way, he was able to map the cardiovascular system, which had always been treated descriptively, onto mathematical models. This allowed doctors and surgeons to quantify cardiovascular function, and that led to new treatments for heart disease and new computing tools for use in hospitals, includ­ing in operating rooms.

Michael L. Millenson, in his book, ‘‘Demanding Medical Excellence: Doctors and Accountability in the Information Age,’’ wrote that by the late 1950s, the Latter-day Saints Hospital had built a computer capable of providing real-time data about a heart surgery patient’s blood pressure, cardiac output, and heart rate faster and more accurately than nurses making the same measurements manually.

Much of the rest of Dr. Warner’s career was devoted to the idea of translating medical knowledge ­into computational data that could aid the reasoning of working doctors.

In the early 1960s, he became founding chairman of what is now the department of biomedical informatics at the University of Utah, the first degree-granting program in the field. He helped develop a database that correlated and cross-referenced information about drugs, symptoms, and diseases, translating medical terminology into code that a computer could process. The database was an antecedent of the Unified Medical Language System at the National Library of Medicine.

In 1968, Dr. Warner wrote the first version of the software program for a fledgling data system called Health Evaluation Through Logical Processing, known as HELP, with the idea of having all available information about various medical subjects — say, penicillin or chest pain — in one accessible place.

The purpose was to provide for real-time doctor assistance, so that if, for example, a patient came in complaining of a rash, a fever, and headache, the computer would be able to suggest the appropriate diagnostic tests. The program proved especially effective in helping doctors identify the causes of ­adverse drug reactions, which the hospital was able to reduce significantly.

‘‘Homer was among the first to really think about how you should structure medical knowledge so it could be used computationally to help with patient care,’’ said Joyce Mitchell, the departing chair­woman of Utah’s biomedical informatics department, ‘‘and then to demonstrate that you could actually do it.’’

Homer Richards Warner was born in Salt Lake City on April 18, 1922. His father, also named ­Homer, was an auto dealer and a sports official. He studied zoology at the University of Utah and played quarterback on the football team, though his education was interrupted when he joined the US Navy during World War II. He trained as a pilot but never saw combat.

He finished his bachelor’s degree in 1946 and his medical degree in 1949. By 1953 he had worked at Parkland Hospital in Dallas and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and had earned a doctorate in physiology from the University of Minnesota. It was at the Mayo Clinic that he created a method for measuring the amount of blood the heart squeezes out each time it contracts, a project that fired his enthusiasm for medical research.

Dr. Warner’s wife of many decades, Katherine Anne Romney, (a distant relation of the recent presidential candidate) died in 2007. He then married a family friend, Jean Okland, whose husband, Jack, had also died. When Jean Okland died in 2011, Dr. Warner married Jack’s sister, June.

Besides his son Homer, he leaves his wife; a sister, Emma Lou Thayne; a brother, Gil; two other sons, Stephen and Willard; three daughters, Kathy Black, Ann Bradley, and Jodi Wagner; 23 grandchildren; and 32 great-grandchildren.

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