Finding a Job with Purpose in Health IT

February 2018
Jay Walonoski
Jay Walonoski

"I was working as a software engineer for a financial firm and found it unfulfilling," says Jason (Jay) Walonoski, looking back on the first job he took after graduating college. Hearing him talk about how much he would rather be hiking the Appalachian Trail (A.T.), a friend suggested Walonoski quit work and make the trek. Walonoski did just that, walking all 2,200 miles of the A.T. in four months and eight days.

"But when I was done," he recalls, "I said to myself, 'What am I going to do now?'"

So, the Connecticut native went to Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts to get his Master's in Computer Science. "I was a research assistant and looking to do interesting things that were meaningful to me," he says. He interviewed for many jobs, but chose to come to MITRE in February 2006. "And, I've been here ever since."

Why MITRE? "It was not long after 9/11," he says, "and working at MITRE gave me an opportunity to do my part to make the country safer. MITRE is not about profit—it's about doing the right thing."

From Defense to Health—It's All About a Safer World

Walonoski started his career at MITRE in meteorology and weather, especially as they related to unmanned aircraft systems. He moved on to working on bistatic radar projects.

He had been working on bistatic radar for more than two years when he ran into Harry Sleeper, who originally hired Walonoski and heads up MITRE's Open Health Services Department. "When are you going to come work for me and help save people's lives?" Sleeper asked him. And kept asking, every time he ran into Walonoski over the course of six months or so. Married and with two children at the time, Walonoski's perspective on life had changed. "This opportunity really intrigued me," he says. "So, I switched over to healthcare."

Says Sleeper, "I knew Jason was very talented: strong machine learning, strong software engineering, strong sense of purpose, and strong sense of working in the public interest. That's exactly the creative talent we need in digital healthcare. Someone who is not afraid to fight to bring the healthcare world into the 21st century."

Helping Health IT Catch Up

"One of the things everyone in healthcare has been saying over the past decade, is that health IT is a decade behind the state of the art," Walonoski says. So, he's part of MITRE teams that are striving to help the health IT field catch up.

The challenge he encountered was the shortage of useful patient data. "If you wanted to do any type of exercise or scenario, there was no data to use that wasn't protected." People had been talking about producing synthetic data—simulated patient records—for quite a while, he adds. "Finally, we got to the point where we said, 'let's go this route.'"  The result was Synthea.

Synthea bridges the patient data gap. It is an open-source software tool that generates synthetic patients and their medical histories based on factual human disease models and demographic data. MITRE offers it to the health IT community free of charge, and the community is adopting it and contributing to its further development.

Walonoski has given talks about Synthea and SyntheticMass at the American Medical Informatics Association and Duke University School of Medicine, just to name a few. (You can watch his talk at Duke via YouTube or read the interview he and MITRE COO Peter Sherlock did with Mass Digital Health.)

Another challenge is there is no single, good standard for exchanging health data, he says. "Health data interoperability is fundamental to advancing healthcare." One of the potential solutions is FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources), a draft standard and application programming interface for exchanging electronic health records. Walonoski was part of the team, initially headed by Principal Software Systems Engineer Andre Quina, that developed Crucible, a software tool that helps developers test their FHIR-based applications for errors.

Quina shares an anecdote about Walonoski that he says, "captures how Jay engages with people in a memorable way, to build relationships with key leaders in the healthcare IT community." In advance of a major conference, members of MITRE's health IT team ordered standard MITRE business cards to hand out at the event. "Jay got his own business card with just his name on it, nothing more," Quina recalls. "It seemed so counter-intuitive, but people remembered him, made an effort to figure out how to get in touch with him, and did so. It was brilliant."

Working Across Domains on the Nation's Hard Problems

What gets Walonoski excited to come into work each day? "I've worked in five different domains since I've been at MITRE," he says. "There are a lot of hard problems that our government sponsors—and country—face. The nice thing is that we get to work in the public interest on those hard problems, without conflict of interest. We aren't constrained in our thinking."

—by Jim Chido

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