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Collaborative efforts set stage for new ideas to improve practice of medicine

November 18, 2007

Physicians and other medical professionals from among the most prominent research and health care institutions in Arizona will play integral roles in ASU’s new Department of Biomedical Informatics.

Mayo Clinic, Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center, the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), Banner Health and the Biodesign Institute at ASU are among the first partners.

Several leaders at these institutions will serve as joint faculty members and clinical faculty members for the new department.

Partnerships are also being planned with the Maricopa County health system, the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center in Phoenix and the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS).

The biomedical informatics department is part of the School of Computing and Informatics in the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering. It is co-located at ASU’s Tempe campus and in the new $29.6 million Arizona Biomedical Collaborative building at the downtown Phoenix Biomedical Campus.

Biomedical informatics is a discipline that has evolved at the intersections of information technology, biology, statistics, cognitive science and psychology, computer science and engineering, and biomedical and social sciences.

It is considered essential to the advancement of custom-tailored – or “personalized” – medicine, and to more efficient management of the vast amounts of data generated in modern biology.

The field is also crucial to efforts to develop national and state electronic medical records systems, and to the effective operation of local, regional and national public health coordinating networks that are being established to manage modernized medical records systems.

The new department’s closest collaboration is with the University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix in partnership with Arizona State University. They are sharing some faculty and facilities, and medical school students are being provided the opportunity for special training in biomedical informatics.

"Improvement of health and health care is our driving mission,” says Dr. Robert Greenes, chair of the Department of Biomedical Informatics. “I think there is broad recognition of the necessity for a high degree of interaction between individuals with multiple perspectives and different kinds of expertise to achieve that goal.”

Greenes came to ASU recently after a long career at Harvard University. “One of the things that attracted me to [the university’s biomedical informatics program] is the openness and enthusiasm for collaboration of the many people and organizations I have met."

Says Sethuraman Panchanathan, director of the School of Computing and Informatics: “The relationships we are forging are highly synergistic and will benefit everyone. Students will be exposed to real-world research and health care environments, and provided opportunities for internships and career advancement. Our clinical partners will benefit from the connection to our faculty, students, educational facilities and research projects. It will give them direct access to the latest advances in biomedical informatics. These advances will help fulfill the promise of establishing electronic medical records systems and personalized medicine.” 

Partnerships are structured to allow ASU biomedical informatics faculty to maintain clinical affiliations, and to give physicians, nurses, researchers and technicians at hospitals and medical centers opportunities to learn and apply the latest informatics knowledge.

“These collaborations are going to enable the biomedical informatics program to have an immediate and direct impact on improving health care in the community,” Panchanathan says. 

The program “is really being watched nationally and internationally for how it is integrating education in biomedical informatics with a medical college curriculum,” says Dr. Howard Silverman, whose multiple roles exemplify the department’s partnership model. Silverman is assistant dean for information services and a clinical professor of family and community medicine in the College of Medicine-Phoenix, and he’s also a clinical professor in ASU’s biomedical informatics department.

Two of 13 students accepted into the department’s master’s degree program already have internship positions at Barrow Neurological Institute under Dr. Shahram Partovi. He is director of medical informatics and a neuroradiologist at the institute, as well as a clinical faculty member in the biomedical informatics department.

AHCCCS also is selecting ASU biomedical informatics students for internships.

Hospitals and other medical institutions are eager to establish academic, research and clinical partnerships, Partovi says, because “they understand you can’t go far today in medicine without advances in informatics.”

Health care leaders “are realizing that we have hit the ceiling with old methods of trying to achieve operational efficiency,” he says. “We need a quantum leap forward, and biomedical informatics is at the core of what will improve the information systems necessary to cross that threshold to better health care.”

The biomedical informatics department and its partnerships, he says, “are going to be a catalyst for the kind of new ideas and new ways of doing things that are required to bring about a revolution in the practice of medicine.”