Joe Rush paid for his first undergraduate semester at the University of Florida with money collected in a coffee can with his name on it. His mother kept coffee cans for each of her 12 children in the laundry room. Every time a Rush child babysat, mowed a lawn or was given a quarter from the Tooth Fairy, the money went straight into the personalized bank.
As a result, 11 Rush siblings used their savings to attend UF at some point. About as many of Rush’s nieces and nephews have also attended UF, continuing the Gator legacy.
“Christmastime at our house is a blur of orange and blue,” Rush said.
Rush is a continual blur of energy himself. A mathematician at heart, Rush’s professional résumé leaps from engineering to computer programming to UF College of Medicine faculty member.
An anchor in his life, both professionally and personally, has been the University of Florida. When given the opportunity to telecommute and live anywhere in the world, Rush settled just outside Gainesville, though he continues to travel the world with a sense of adventure.
“I think Joe’s kind of frenetic — very enthusiastic and energetic,” said Marvin Dewar, MD, chief executive officer of UF Health Physicians. “That carries over to everything he does — whether he’s working on writing an electronic textbook, teaching medical students or participating in extreme sports.”
Rush graduated in 1977 with a degree in mathematics, then earned his master’s in engineering.
He found himself in St. Petersburg, a mile from his parents’ home, working on “Star Wars-type stuff” for a U.S. Department of Defense contractor, which included guided-missile systems and satellite communications. In surrounding cubicles, co-workers collaborated to develop ARPANET — the precursor to the Internet — and the stealth fighter.
“I discovered, much to my surprise, I really enjoyed working with computers. I found out I really have a knack for it,” Rush said.
In 1982, Rush applied to medical school at UF and the University of Miami School of Medicine after debating other graduate school options, including mathematics — his “true love.”
When he realized he would need additional prerequisite courses to attend UF, Rush headed south to Miami.
“I say UF had the good judgment not to accept me, but then they blew it by accepting me as faculty a few years later,” Rush said, laughing.
While he thought he was leaving his engineering profession behind, it was his observations of what he calls “pre-Gutenberg technology” — or hand-written medical records — during his rotations that changed his mind.
“I was stunned to see how far behind the times hospitals were in using computers to facilitate health care delivery,” he said.
Rush considered developing medical computer software immediately after graduation. Instead, his father and older brother, both radiologists, advised him to practice as a doctor for at least a year to experience caring for patients. After completing an internal medicine fellowship at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, Rush was accepted to a fellowship at Harvard Medical School’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
“During my fellowship, I teamed up with a professor, world-renowned author and probably the world’s foremost expert in fluids and electrolytes,” Rush said of Burton “Bud” Rose, MD, a nephrologist at Harvard Medical School.
Working out of Rose’s garage, the two eventually launched UpToDate, an online resource containing current, physician-reviewed medical information. Since its inception in 1992, UpToDate has grown to cover all of internal medicine and its specialties, as well as obstetrics and gynecology, and pediatrics. It includes about 12,000 chapters maintained by more than 5,000 authors and has the largest circulation of any medical publication in the world.
By 2007, UpToDate was in 140 countries and had about 500,000 subscribers. Additionally, 90 percent of academic medical centers in the U.S. subscribed, as well as every Navy and Army clinic and veterans hospital. Now, more than 850,000 clinicians in 164 countries use the program.
“We have since grown to be the 800-pound gorilla in this industry,” Rush said.
That gorilla was more of a dream than a reality when Drew Fuller, MD ’95, was in medical school at UF in 1992 and Rush was a faculty member.
“I remember Joe trying to talk to us about this new system he was creating,” Fuller said. “The technology was just so new. Most students didn’t know how to respond to it.”
Fuller, the director of safety innovation with Emergency Medicine Associates, said he realized the impact of UpToDate around 2006 as an attending at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.
“For medical students rotating, the first resource they went to was UpToDate time and time again,” Fuller said.
When Rush joined the UF community health and family medicine faculty in 1992, he worked with Dewar and R. Whit Curry Jr., MD, the department chair until 2013. Rush recently gave a $1 million gift to name two classrooms in the George T. Harrell, MD, Medical Education Building after Curry and Dewar and the student lounge after his parents, Joseph C. Rush (who passed away in 2003) and Florence Pavlik Rush.
Curry, who remembers Rush parachuting into a faculty retreat, said students loved Rush when he taught at the rural medicine Cross City Clinic, now UF Health Family Medicine – Old Town. Rush was also an instructor in the geriatrics residency program.
“I was impressed — everybody was impressed — with the energy he brought to everything he did,” Dewar said.
Rush left his UF faculty position and moved to Massachusetts in 1997 to help launch the online version of UpToDate. After the company flourished, then sold in 2007, Rush was able to telecommute from anywhere in the world. He chose to return to Gainesville.
Rush reserves his free time for one of his favorite hobbies — contra dancing.
“Imagine a super-duper marching band. They look like they’re colliding and moving in and out. It’s that kind of dancing. But you do it in a really tight, crowded venue,” he said.
Using hand gestures and quick mental calculations, Rush explained the dancers follow rhythmic patterns as the caller shouts out moves with names such as “do-si-do” or “swing your neighbor.”
Rush’s continual motion and source of energy date back to his parents, who never allowed their 12 children, one of whom passed away in childhood, to remain idle. The Rush family motto was “Go outside and play.”
“It’s still my motto,” he said.
Listen to contra music
Music by Wild Asparagus