ASU’s biomedical informatics department aims to transform health care

July 30, 2007

By hammersmith

Arizona State University’s Department of Biomedical Informatics has found a home at the downtown Phoenix Biomedical Campus—no small feat for a program conceptualized in 2005.

This is a strategic move for ASU, whose half of the new $29.6 million, 85,600 square-foot Arizona Biomedical Collaborative (ABC-1) building signals a serious investment in a new area of science that is increasingly important to the nation’s universities.

The department also is a vital component of the new medical school in downtown Phoenix, the University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix in partnership with Arizona State University. The college, unique in its dual university structure, accepts its first class in August.

Biomedical informatics — the use of information technology to improve health care and biomedical science — has the potential to revolutionize health care and to improve the lives of Arizona’s residents. Noting the power of biomedical informatics to personalize medical care, ASU President Michael Crow says, “The application of informatics and computing to bioscience will enable physicians and other health-care practitioners to replace ‘off-the-shelf’ medical treatments with courses of treatment custom-tailored for the individual patient.”

Dr. Sethuraman PanchanathanThe Department of Biomedical Informatics is part of a new School of Computing and Informatics in the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering. The study of information — how it is gathered, stored, manipulated, analyzed, and presented — has become so large and important that it has been given its own terminology: informatics. “There is a convergence of information science, biological science, health, and clinical sciences,” says founding school director and professor Dr. Sethuraman Panchanathan. “People with backgrounds in the sciences and engineering, medicine, computing and informatics will come together to make personalized medicine a reality.”

It is estimated that nearly 100,000 Americans die annually in hospitals as a result of preventable medical errors. Biomedical informatics can reduce the number of such patient deaths through innovations such as electronic medical records, which allow physicians to quickly and easily find a patient’s prior medication history and thus avoid prescribing contra-indicated medications.

President George Bush has called for the adoption of interoperable electronic medical records by 2014. Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano has a goal of making electronic health records available in Arizona a reality by 2010, four years ahead of the federal goal. Faculty from the Department of Biomedical Informatics play a key role in the governor’s e-health initiative, which is developing a state roadmap for implementing electronic health records.

Dr. Vimla PatelMost biomedical informatics departments are located in medical and health schools. The integration of the ASU department in a school of computing and informatics, co-located with the medical school at the biomedical campus, provides a unique environment for building a world-class program. It was this aspect that enticed the department’s interim chair, Dr. Vimla Patel, to come to Arizona from Columbia University.

“I knew that President Crow felt very positive about the Department of Biomedical Informatics at Columbia University and wanted to promote that type of program here at ASU,” explains Patel. “And what could be better than starting a brand new department from scratch and having it built the way you think it should be built? It was a fantastic opportunity from all points of view.”

Dr. Edward Shortliffe serves as a faculty member for the biomedical informatics program in addition to his duties as the founding dean of the downtown medical school. “In many institutions, biomedical informatics programs struggle if there isn’t buy-in and support from the folks at the top. But I think that the commitment from the leadership of ASU, plus our support here at the College of Medicine, is a strong indicator of a high chance of success,” says Shortliffe.

Such a vote of confidence from Shortliffe is no small statement — he has helped pioneer two of the nation’s leading biomedical informatics programs at Stanford and Columbia universities. Given his background in both medicine and biomedical informatics, Shortliffe is unusually motivated to bridge the two areas. “Though physicians will not be biomedical informaticians,” Shortliffe explains, “they need to know something about the discipline, just like they need to know about pharmacology or physiology.”

The department will offer doctoral and master’s degrees, as well as continuing education for health care providers. Biomedical informatics graduate students, while interacting with medical students and faculty, will become fully immersed in their own unique and specialized curriculum, choosing between five areas of focus: clinical informatics, bioinformatics, imaging informatics, public health informatics, and cognition and decision-making. In addition, medical students will receive training in biomedical informatics as part of their core curriculum.

The biomedical informatics program will provide state-of-the-art education in the theory and practice of electronic medical recordkeeping, clinical decision-making, and the management of information systems in health care for clinicians who wish to broaden their skills and improve career prospects. For scientists and engineers, the program will offer interdisciplinary courses and research opportunities that will enable them to occupy leadership roles in designing and implementing the next generation of biotechnology systems, pharmaceutical development, integrative biology, and translational research.

Dr. Shez PartoviAccording to Elizabeth Kittrie, the department’s associate director, the department will be able to build on the strengths of other program models, while avoiding their mistakes. “We have an opportunity to see what’s worked and what hasn’t worked, so we can take the best ideas and implement them here.”

The department also will house research centers, including the Center for Decision Making and Cognition (CDMC), led by Patel, and the Center for Health Information & Research (CHIR), led by Dr. William Johnson, an economics professor. CDMC is involved in research on cognitive characteristics related to human decision-making and learning, and its relationship to the design of decision-support and other health information technologies for safe use in clinical environments. CHIR is a multidisciplinary research unit addressing health care outcomes, quality of care, economics, informatics, disability, health care workforce, medical malpractice, and occupational illness/injury.

The department now occupies the first two floors of the ABC-1 building, while the third and fourth floors provide laboratory space for the faculty in the Department of Basic Medical Sciences at the College of Medicine-Phoenix. The building also features collaborative laboratory space, three video conference rooms, and a high-tech immersive “telepresence” room similar to those used by major hospitals around the country for teleconferencing and telesurgery.

The department’s prized location at the downtown Phoenix Biomedical Campus offers unique research opportunities. Students will be able to pursue individual research projects through partnerships with researchers at neighbor institutions, such as the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center, Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center, and the ASU College of Nursing.

Says David Young, ASU senior vice president for academic affairs, “The co-development of the Department of Biomedical Informatics and the College of Medicine at the Phoenix Biomedical Campus provides us with a unique opportunity to provide future physicians and other health care professionals with the comprehensive set of skills that are necessary for the practice of medicine in the 21st Century.”