Skip to main content

At the forefront of improving health care

August 16, 2007

Christopher Miller sees himself embarking on a promising path “to the forefront of medicine” in the 21st century. Deepa Madathil anticipates learning to use new technologies “to turn information into knowledge that will make health care better.”

Miller, who recently earned a degree in biology from ASU, and Madathil, who has been pursuing graduate studies in bioengineering at the university, are among the 11 members of the inaugural class of ASU’s new biomedical informatics degree program. Classes begin Aug. 20.

The Department of Biomedical Informatics is in ASU’s School of Computing and Informatics, a part of the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering.

The first class of students will pursue master’s degrees in the new $29.6 million Arizona Biomedical Collaborative (ABC) Building 1 adjacent to the downtown Phoenix Biomedical Campus.

ABC 1 is shared by researchers in the new University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix in Partnership with Arizona State University, and faculty, students and researchers in the ASU’s Department of Biomedical Informatics. Classes in the ABC building will be linked by teleconference to classrooms on ASU’s Tempe campus.

ASU biomedical informatics graduate students will interact with the College of Medicine students and faculty, while being immersed in specialized curriculum from one of five focus areas: clinical informatics, bioinformatics, imaging informatics, public health informatics, and cognition and decision-making. In addition, medical students will receive training in biomedical informatics from ASU faculty as part of their core curriculum.

The program moves ASU into the vanguard of an emerging biomedical informatics discipline that melds computer science and engineering, biology, information technology, cognition and decision-making research, mathematics and health and social sciences – all aimed at improving the quality of health care. 

ASU President Michael Crow emphasizes the potential for biomedical informatics to personalize medical care.

"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,” Crow says.

Most biomedical informatics departments are located in medical and health schools. The integration of the ASU’s new 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, says Sethuraman Panchanathan, founding director of the school.

“There is a convergence of information science, biological science, health and clinical sciences. People with backgrounds in the sciences and engineering, medicine, computing and informatics will come together to make personalized medicine a reality,” Panchanathan says.

Biomedical informatics applies such varied areas of expertise to improving the efficiency and effectiveness of medical research, education, testing, diagnosis and treatment. It’s seen as critical to advancing “personalized” or “customized” medicine, in which care is tailored to specific health profiles of individual patients.

It is also emerging as an essential tool in federal and state government efforts to establish a national system for compiling and managing electronic medical records and the use of health information technology. 

“It combines everything that interests me – computers and medicine and psychology and statistics,” says Alexander Dragotoniu, a senior in ASU’s Barrett Honors College who plans to enter the program after earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology. “This is going to have a big impact on the future of medicine. It’s something I want to be a part of.”

The first class of students reflects the range of disciplines that apply to informatics. One holds a master’s degree in clinical psychology. Two students hold degrees in medicine. Others have undergraduate degrees in scientific fields that include biophysics, biology, engineering and computer science.

The students will be entering a program that has been in planning and development for more than two years, but already has achieved significant milestones:

• Research collaborations are being established with the UA College of Medicine, Mayo Clinic, Banner Health, Barrow Neurological Institute, the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System and more than 75 data partners of ASU’s Center for Health Information and Research.

• Along with Panchanathan, the department’s leadership includes new chair Bob Greenes, who is coming to ASU from Harvard Medical School, and vice chair Vimla Patel, who came to ASU from Columbia University.

• Patel is transferring her Center for Decision Making and Cognition to ASU from Columbia University, and two new research centers under development – the Center for Clinical Informatics and the Center for Bioinformatics – will be part of the biomedical informatics program.

• Faculty members already hold 11 research grants totaling more than $3 million, with at least 28 proposals under consideration for additional grants totaling more than $20 million, from sources such as the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the National Human Genome Research Institute and the U.S. Department of Defense.

• Several faculty hold dual appointments with the program’s clinical partners:

o Dr. Shahram Partovi is director of medical informatics at the Barrow Neurological Institute. 
o Suengchan Kim, an assistant professor in ASU’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering, holds a joint appointment at TGen.
o Patel is also director of medical education research at the UA College of Medicine-Phoenix in partnership with ASU.
o Dr. Edward Shortliffe, dean of the medical college, also is a professor in the ASU biomedical informatics program. Shortliffe is the former chair of the Department of Biomedical Informatics at Columbia University and former head of the Biomedical Informatics Program at Stanford University.

• The program is poised to draw on expertise from ASU’s Biodesign Institute, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, College of Nursing, School of Life Sciences, Center for Health Administration and Policy, and the Center for Law, Science and Technology.

• A biomedical informatics doctoral program proposal has been submitted to the Arizona Board of Regents. Approval is expected in September, with classes to in the fall of 2008.

• Two industry scholarships have been secured from Barrow Neurological Institute, and BMI is actively seeking additional student scholarships.

• The Department of Biomedical Informatics is home to ASU’s Center for Health Information and Research under director William G. Johnson. The center recently won a $1 million award for the Better Quality Information (BQI) Pilot Project from Delmarva Foundation for Medical Care, Inc. for a project to keep Medicare recipients informed about their benefits.

• Department leaders are in discussion with the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System about collaborations on the agency’s $12 million grant to convert information on Medicaid recipients from paper to internet-based medical records and develop “the physician’s office of tomorrow.”

• Much of the program’s work will be based at the 85,600-square-foot Arizona Biomedical Collaborative Building 1. The facility is described by Shortliffe as the “largest and most impressive research space dedicated to biomedical informatics at any university in the country.”

The Department of Biomedical Informatics also plans to develop an undergraduate program designed to make ASU a national model for undergraduate degrees in the field.

In addition, an executive program offering intensive short courses in biomedical informatics is being planned for community leaders, business managers and health care professionals. 

The program’s leaders also anticipate offering continuing medical education for nurses and other health care professionals, via face-to-face, hybrid, and online distance-education courses.

The department will also offer “think tank” sessions to focus on various health care issues and topics, and to target new and emerging fields of study within the realm of biomedical informatics.

The potential impact of advances in biomedical informatics is dramatic. It’s estimated that nearly 100,000 Americans die annually in hospitals as a result of preventable medical errors. Expertise in biomedical informatics could reduce the number of such patient deaths through innovations such as electronic medical records that will allow physicians to quickly and easily find a patient's prior medication history and avoid prescribing contra-indicated medications. 

The bottom line, Panchanathan says, is that “a strong biomedical informatics program at ASU will help ensure that Arizonans have access to state-of-the art, efficient, safe, and low-cost clinical care.”

Adds Patel: “The ultimate goal is to improve patient care and human health by streamlining the process of applying the knowledge gained from basic biomedical and informatics research to clinical use in a cost-effective manner, with patient safety as the priority.” 

The department will be able to build on the strengths of other program models, while avoiding their limitations, says Elizabeth Kittrie, the department’s associate director.

“We have an opportunity to see what has worked and what hasn’t worked in other programs, so we can take the best ideas and implement them here,” Kittrie says. 

David A. Young, ASU senior vice president for academic affairs, observes: “The co-development of the Department of Biomedical Informatics and the College of Medicine at the Phoenix Biomedical Campus provides ASU 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.”

Biomedical informatics is a key element in the National Institutes of Health plan for accelerating medical discoveries and innovation to improve Americans’ health. Institutions with informatics components are expected to have better opportunities to attract federal funding to pursue that national goal.

Creation of a leading biomedical informatics program, collaborating with the college of medicine and other Arizona health care organizations will further solidify Arizona’s position as a leader in the biosciences.

The program should also bolster Arizona’s knowledge-based economy. Industry studies indicate a growing multibillion-dollar market for bioinformatics products, more than 20,000 new jobs available nationally for those with expertise in the field, and opportunities for new business start-ups to support the emerging industry.

Writer: Joe Kullman