The university has recruited a nationally known expert in the field to head its brand-new Institute for Informatics, about which Selwyn Vickers, MD, senior vice president and dean of the UAB School of Medicine, says “Informatics is a relatively new, but incredibly important field, and its reach encompasses all aspects of medicine.”
"For a long time those of us in informatics were the ones in the corner at cocktail parties," says James Cimino, MD, director of the Institute. “When we told people what type work we did, they would usually respond with a dull look and move on. But suddenly we're the new kid on the block."
According to the dictionary definition, "Biomedical informatics is the science of collecting, representing, storing, retrieving and processing data and knowledge for the ultimate purpose of improving human health." The colloquial term is "using computers in medicine," but Cimino says the field is far broader than that.
For one thing, the growth of informatics will change the way doctors, nurses, and researchers write down and keep track of their information. Rather than taking traditional notes, for example, Cimino says that "if a physician talks into his smart device throughout the day, commenting on the patients he sees, that information goes into the record, and it's done because the physician knows how to talk to the recorder and the computer knows how he is going to talk. We have a nice, rich symbolic representation of what he just said.
"The computer can take that information and make it actionable. It can write the orders. It can write the progress notes. We don't have to write progress notes. All that information could already be in there; the computer could say, 'Here's what happened today and here's what we're doing for each problem.'"
The growth of informatics is also paralleling the growth of DNA research. "The Personalized Medicine Institute, for instance," Cimino says, is another one of Dr. Vickers' initiatives. And that's about understanding how to use information specific to a patient - particularly their genetic information - to optimize or customize the care for that patient."
One example would be to use data about a patient’s genetic makeup along with her clinical characteristics to allow more specific selection and dosing of medications.
"We want to deliver genetics information to the point of care," Cimino says, "and the Informatics Institute will help facilitate that by being a bridge between the generating of that knowledge and the delivery at the point of care within the health system. It's not exactly clear how all these things will play out, but we are collaborative and we're going to make it work."
One of the main challenges, he says, is that "computers have outpaced their adoption in health care. Other disciplines have adopted computers much more fully; banking, manufacturing, insurance, for instance. In banking, computers keep track of accounts with dollars and cents. But in medicine, it's difficult to represent what we do in a way that's regular and compartmentalized enough that we can explain it to a computer.”
Collaborations among departments will play a big part in the Institute's effort. For example, if the Computer Science Department wants to try a new technique to analyze data, Cimino could offer them health data. Or if natural-language processing people in Computer Science are working on news articles, Cimino might ask them to help use these skills on medical records.
"Our common goal for health informatics is to create electronic health records with the idea of making patient information more readily available, more legible, and to be able to apply computer-based guidelines to improve the consistency and quality of care, the application of best evidence to care,” Cimino says. “Those are big challenges, but we can apply these tools not only to improve the care of patients whose data is in those records, but also to use those records for research so that we can improve the care of other people down the road."