Dr. Jay Sanders – often called “The Father of Telemedicine” for his work introducing telehealth in the Southeast in the 1970s – can remember the day that telemedicine was conceived, and by whom. To Sanders, the true father of telemedicine is Dr. Kenneth Bird. Here’s his story.
It was late summer, 1967. I was working as a senior resident in medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. In those days there was no emergency medical specialty. The senior resident and the surgical senior resident rotated two 12-hour shifts, running the emergency room. I was out front in the emergency department waiting for the next Boston traffic accident victim to come through the doors when the doors swung open and in came my professor, who was red-faced and upset. I knew exactly why he was upset. These professors of medicine at the Massachusetts General Hospital were making a grand total of about $8,000 a year. So many of them moonlighted. One of the jobs that Ken Bird was doing was moonlighting as the medical director at Logan Airport Medical Station. Anybody who knows Boston knows that the Airport’s only 3.5 miles away from the Mass General, except for one problem: the traffic. In those days, there was only one tunnel under the Charles River, not three like there are today. And every day he would have to go back and forth 3.5 miles to Logan Airport to see airport employees or travelers who got sick. And every day he would get stuck in terrible traffic in the Sumner Tunnel. It would literally take him an hour each way.
He got so frustrated this one day in 1967 that he came through the MGH doors with an idea. Since I was the first one he saw, he came up to me and he grabbed my arm and he said: “Jay!” I said, “I understand, Dr. Bird. I know you got caught in traffic again.” And he said, “No! I did, but I had this idea! What if I bought two TV cameras and put one at Logan Airport and one here in the MGH ER and I began to examine patients over TV? What do you think?”
Now I have to tell you I thought it was the stupidest idea I’d ever heard of in my life. But I had enough common sense to realize he was my professor. I was a resident and I said, “Gee, Dr. Bird, that’s a very interesting idea.” And I’ve been working on his stupid idea ever since.