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Warner Slack—Doctor for the People Forever

Warner Slack was a humble, multi-faceted great American physician at Harvard Medical School’s affiliated hospitals. Yet after he passed away last month at age 85, Dr. Slack did not receive the news coverage accorded numerous late entertainers, athletes, writers and scoundrels. In fact, his life was ignored by the Boston Globe, New York Times and the Washington Post.

Dr. Slack, in his pioneering, brilliant humane work, always focused on the lives of the American people whom he served in the millions, directly and indirectly.

It has been said that in a celebrity culture, we honor whom we value. Along the way the most important human beings who give us the blessings of liberty, justice, health, safety, knowledge and overall well-being mostly are missed or slighted by the priorities of a commercially driven culture. These people lift up our society every day on their largely anonymous, selfless shoulders.

In his final days, struggling with pulmonary fibrosis, I called Dr. Slack to express my deepest admiration and said: “For all your adult life, Warner, you have been a physician’s physician, a patient’s physician, a student’s physician, a citizen’s physician, and a champion of peace and justice.” This gentle, many-splendored medical doctor achieved such excellence in an age of specialization and amorality.

Dr. Sidney Wolfe, the nationally known long time director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, called Warner “a hero of mine.”

Just what did Warner Slack do to receive such encomiums? First, he was an early vocal medical practitioner who supported universal health insurance, when few were urging such humanity. He was among the first physicians in the world to see and apply the potential of computers in healthcare delivery but declared that advances mattered only if they advanced patients’ wellbeing. He insisted on patients being informed, on being empowered, and he led the way from his clinical practice in ending the absurdity of prohibiting patients from accessing their own medical records. Over the opposition of most of his profession and hospitals, he pressed on until this basic patient right was enacted as part of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

Dr. Slack founded the Division of Clinical Computing from which flowed many professional articles and studies including prescient warnings about how computers misused can invade patients’ privacy and waste a ton of taxpayer money. He also pointed out that mindless converting from paper records to digital records might ill-serve the patients.

Once in a rare while, we meet relentlessly honest and courageous people who instinctively and cognitively see through the ruses, the snares and the delusions, and the profiteering propaganda that harm innocent, trusting people in so many grave ways.

Unlike many innovators, who bask in the limelight of praise, Dr. Slack humbly kept at it pressing for how his breakthroughs could actually benefit patients and not be hijacked for the all-mighty dollar. Human beings were never to be reduced to numbers.

As his son, author Charlie Slack wrote:

[Warner Slack’s] article “The Patient’s Right to Decide,” published in the British journal The Lancet, put forth a then-radical idea of “patient power”—encouraging patients and physicians alike to overturn the traditionally paternalistic nature of healthcare. Patients, Dr. Slack believed, should play a crucial part in determining their own care. Their insight, he often said, was “the least utilized resource in healthcare.

As an original thinker, a visionary, and a rigorous conveyer of medical ethics and responsibility to the hundreds of young clinicians he mentored or trained, Dr. Slack, maintained his steadfastness with a remarkable congeniality and the human touch.

In pain and hospitalized for weeks, he never complained. His demeanor and continual regard for the orderlies, nurses, and physicians, who took loving care of him, revealed his authentic character.

An early inchoate defender of the underdog, he was among the first physicians to publically oppose the Vietnam War, to go down South to help injured civil rights marchers, even working to help ease the integration of the University of Wisconsin football team. While in his seventies, he twice went to Honduras to provide medical assistance to residents of remote, impoverished villages.

A Princeton classmate of mine, Warner and I got to know each other better in 1980 when he and our Center independently issued tough critiques of multiple-choice standardized testing (SATs, etc.). As the author or co-author of many articles, book chapters, newspaper op-eds and books, such as Cybermedicine: How Computing Empowers Doctors and Patients for Better Health Care, Warner was very aware of phony studies, deceptive statistics, and other technical ways to manipulate persons.

Together with his colleague, Douglas Porter, he authored, in the Harvard Educational Review, the myth-busting article, “The Scholastic Aptitude Test: A Critical Appraisal.” They demonstrated that, contrary to ETS’s defiant assertions, aptitude was not frozen and its test scores could be raised by study and training for the tests. They also showed that SAT scores are poor predictors of college academic performance compared with high school grades.

Our study, “Reign of ETS: The Corporation That Makes Up Minds,” added that non-quantifiable traits, such as diligence, creativity, stamina, and even motivational idealism, can be more important as predictors of college performance.

This year, Warner’s critiques were further vindicated by the news that, joining some other colleges, the University of Chicago, has dropped these standardized tests as a requirement for admission.

Warner managed his interests and professional activities and duties without sacrificing being with his wife, Carolyn, their three children, and seven grandchildren. He relished these gatherings where he expressed his limitless curiosity about the world and continued to be, in Charlie’s words, “a person defined mainly by his youthfulness.”

Someone once said that “the only true aging is the erosion of one’s ideals.” No one who knew and worked with Warner viewed him as “elderly.” He couldn’t have been more contemporary and forward-looking with his classmates whenever they gathered for meetings regarding their unique alumni class organization—Princeton Project 55, which placed Princeton undergraduates and graduates with systemic civic groups around the country.

Dr. Slack was as complete a brainy, humane, down-to-earth, big picture human being as you could ever meet.

He left this life in Carolyn’s arms on the morning of their 62nd wedding anniversary.

His legacy is strong, deeply rooted in his many students and colleagues, and is lastingly conveyed in his writings and exemplary career, under pressure and controversy.

A biography of Warner Slack and his times needs to be written.

Donations may be made to the Warner Slack Scholarship for Clinical Informatics. In order to donate, select the aforementioned scholarship under “gift designation.”

More articles by:

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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