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New Med School Program Puts Health IT In Spotlight

University of Michigan Medical School will train next generation of IT pros to translate clinical research into bedside therapy.
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The University of Michigan Medical School has launched a computational medicine and bioinformatics department that will grant separate postgraduate degrees in bioinformatics and clinical informatics. The latter field has grown increasingly important as hospitals and physicians adopt electronic health records. The new department will emphasize support for medical research and the translation of scientific discoveries into clinical practice as much as the training of clinical informaticists.

The new department is an outgrowth of the U-M Center for Computational Medicine and Bioinformatics, which is also housed in the medical school. The interdisciplinary center, which now has 118 faculty members on its roster--55 of them from the medical school--has received $50 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health since its founding in 2005.

Brian D. Athey, Ph.D., who leads the center, has been named as the chair-designate of the computational medicine and bioinformatics department. A professor of biomedical informatics at the U-M Medical School, Athey also is director of academic informatics and is principal investigator for the NIH bioinformatics training grant.

The U-M Medical School is combining bioinformatics with clinical informatics in a single department because "we would like to see some type of translation and application of bioinformatics into clinical areas," Athey told InformationWeek Healthcare. Typified by the Human Genome Project, bioinformatics uses computer science to analyze biological data, such as nucleotide and amino acid sequences, protein domains, and protein structures. Athey noted it is being applied to "problems of medical interest in labs."

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The University of Michigan has already awarded about 30 Ph.D.s in bioinformatics, but the new department will grant the university's first degrees in clinical informatics. About 15 universities across the country have degree programs in bioinformatics, computational biology, or clinical informatics, Athey estimated. In addition, some academic institutions offer fellowships in clinical informatics.

The U-M School of Public Health and School of Information are also launching a new master's program in "health informatics," Athey noted, and his new department will work closely with that program. Health informatics, he added, is a broad discipline that encompasses everything from chronic care management to remote patient monitoring and mobile health applications.

The department of computational medicine and bioinformatics will not require candidates for clinical informatics degrees to be physicians, Athey said. Not only will nurses be welcome to train as nurse informaticists, but the program will also accommodate people from non-healthcare backgrounds who want to seek Ph.D.s in clinical informatics.

Athey said the department might offer a course that would be an "introduction to clinical and biomedical medicine ... for people who are not physicians." Such individuals might work under "co-mentors" such as an informaticist and a health policy expert. For example, they might study how to use informatics to improve the efficiency of cancer research.

Athey doesn't deny that clinical informaticists who plan to work in healthcare organizations must have an adequate background in healthcare. "We need a rigorous and comprehensive ramp-up of the trainee during the pre-candidate phase," he acknowledged.

The American Board of Medical Specialties is close to deciding whether or not to make clinical informatics a board-certified medical specialty. An ABMS committee recommended on July 27 that clinical informatics be defined as a subspecialty of the American Board of Preventive Medicine and the American Board of Pathology.

Find out how health IT leaders are dealing with the industry's pain points, from allowing unfettered patient data access to sharing electronic records. Also in the new, all-digital issue of InformationWeek Healthcare: There needs to be better e-communication between technologists and clinicians. Download the issue now. (Free registration required.)

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