Information Technology

Dr. Software Wants to Help

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Software companies effectively manage and analyze medical data will emerge as front runners in a market that is predicted to grow five-fold by 2022.

  • Facts


    • SAP has offices in more than 100 nations and customers include 7,100 health-care facilities in 88 countries.
    • Formerly a doctor, David Delaney, 48, is the firm’s chief medical officer.
    • The global business in data analysis in the health care industry alone will rocket from $6.8 billion to $32.4 billion by 2022, according to market research company Stratistics.
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Female surgeon using digital tablet to command artificial heart in operation room.
SAP is at the heart of the trend in health care towards more digitalization. Source: Getty images


The urge to help is in David Delaney’s DNA. His father was a pastor, his mother was a social worker. She encouraged her son to fulfill his dream of becoming a doctor. At the same time, another great passion captivated him: The Commodore 64, the everyday computer of the early 1980s.

“I don’t know how many lawns I mowed in the neighborhood until I had collected the money,” said the American, describing the object of his childhood desires. “With no hard drive, just a magnetic tape as memory.”

But that was enough to enable him to learn programming which later helped finance his college education, including postgraduate Harvard degrees in internal and critical-care medicine.

SAP boss Bill McDermott's decision to choose a doctor for the job has a lot to do with the CEO's difficult last year, when he lost his left eye in an accident.

Now, 35 years after buying the Commodore, Mr. Delaney has flown from his Boston home to Palo Alto, California, for his regular meeting at the U.S. headquarters of his employer, German software giant SAP. Critical-care specialist Mr. Delaney, 48, has managed to combine his passion for medicine and computers by becoming chief medical officer for SAP, the world’s largest business software company.

SAP boss Bill McDermott’s decision to choose a doctor to be one of his key people has a lot to do with the CEO’s difficult last year, when he lost his left eye in an accident. A number of specialists fought to save it. Afterwards, Mr. McDermott raved about a “system that provides incredible care.” But he says he also felt abandoned because he had the impression that, besides himself, “nobody owned the case.”

Almost every time a new doctor made the rounds, Mr. McDermott had to repeat his case history all over again. There was no central file and as a result, he said, “the choreography and the collaboration” between the doctors was lacking. That is something that he wants to change.

“We need a new architecture that can deal with structured and unstructured data,” he said. And he wants SAP to accomplish that feat through Mr. Delaney.

Many software heavyweights including IBM, Microsoft and Oracle have committed themselves to digitalizing the health-care industry. The global business in data analysis in the health care industry alone will rocket from $6.8 billion to $32.4 billion by 2022, according to market research company Stratistics.

If you speak with Mr. Delaney, you’ll find a man possessed by his vision. “It has so much potential, we could have an impact on millions of patients around the whole world,” he said.

Although Mr. Delaney misses the adrenaline rush of the intensive care unit, he doesn’t regret the switch to the information-technology industry. Now he travels all across the United States to speak with hospitals, medical associations and universities, giving lectures and coordinating research projects.

Mr. Delaney has a key advantage in his mission to change medicine. He speaks the language of programmers but also that of doctors and caregivers.

Mr. Delaney has a key advantage in his mission to change medicine. He speaks the language of programmers but also that of doctors and caregivers. And he knows about the medical professionals’ everyday lives. Especially the pressure to be “running at 110 percent or more, given the growing number of patients,” he said.

Until three years ago, he was an intensive-care doctor at the Harvard Medical School, which gave him greater appreciation for the really important things in life.

“Especially when you see younger people fighting death,” he said.

It was this awareness that helped him decide to give up his active practice of medicine, even if it was with a heavy heart.

“My wife and my two small children hardly ever saw me anymore,” said Mr. Delaney, adding that he recognized he had to set other priorities.

And an early awareness of the shortcomings of hospitals’ data management opened the door to his current job. When he trained in the mid-1990s at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital, he was annoyed to find that he had to retrieve all the data on patients from four or five different computer systems. Then he had to make printouts and summarize the reports on one sheet of paper to use while making the rounds.

But the young doctor decided to get proactive about the daily hurdle, writing a software program that automatically retrieved and aggregated the data from the various systems.

He was subsequently charged with taking up an even greater challenge, which was to improve billing procedures. Back then, doctors noted medical codes on pieces of paper. These notes soon formed stacks which often wouldn’t be processed until weeks later, or sometimes got lost entirely.

“It was a matter of millions of dollars,” Mr. Delaney said. “Despite the fact that so much money is spent in the health care industry, the margins are very slim for most physicians.”

The software industry knows a thing or two about improving data management. The topic which sounds mundane can actually unleash practical improvements relatively quickly, for example improving cancer treatments.

SAP is working on this with the American Society of Clinical Oncology at CancerLinQ. The non-profit project launched a platform in 2012 that pools the experience in treating patients, currently numbering 750,000, with millions of sets of data. The platform uses SAP HANA software to process the data.

Software revenues in the health sector are said to be low. SAP doesn’t give detail on its health-related revenues, but does say its customer base spans 7,100 health-care facilities in 88 countries.

The huge decline in the cost of memory and computing power has made it possible to cheaply assess mountains of data.

But Peter Yu, former president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, warned about expecting too much from data analysis, above all when it comes to new cures.

“The more we research, the more it seems that the causes for the outbreak of a disease are much more complicated than thought,” he said.

Moreover, he says, many physicians complain they have little time to talk to patients because dealing with technology takes up so much of their time. He blames this reality on the poor quality of the programs’ user interfaces, as well as the complicated process of entering invoice information.

SAP’s Mr. Delaney sees that as a challenge: “Without question, we have to improve.”

And that mission gives him all the more reason to keep traveling across the country to promote the better use of information. “I practically live in United airplanes,” he said.

From time to time he assists when medical emergencies occur during flight. He dutifully gets involved, but regrets that at an altitude of 33,000 feet, he has to make a correct diagnosis – without the help of data.


This article originally appeared in WirtschaftsWoche. To contact the author:

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