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September 2009 Issue

UC’s new department of biomedical informatics will focus on improving health care by leveraging and maximizing the use of information.
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Experts, Not Tools, Take Stage in Biomedical Information

Published September 2009

Computational tools may be the most visible part of biomedical informatics, but don’t let that fool you. This field is not just a “core” aimed at building tools or providing services for researchers and clinicians. It’s a discipline not unlike internal medicine, surgery or any other medical specialty.

This may explain why, in June, the UC Board of Trustees approved the creation of a new department for this emerging field—one that has great implications on research, education and clinical practice in Cincinnati.

The department will build on current capabilities and expertise, and take advantage of the investments already made by both UC and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

Peter Embi, MD, says that you find biomedical informatics at the intersection of medicine and information technology. And, he adds, experts in biomedical informatics—biomedical informaticians to be exact—aren’t just technicians.

“We work to improve health in a way similar to other specialists by leveraging and maximizing the use of information,” says Embi, associate professor of medicine and director of UC’s Center for Health Informatics.

“Cardiologists, for instance, provide care, but they also innovate and study to advance the field,” he says. “The tools they use—like stethoscopes and catheters—are critical to what they do, but the experts are the key to the success of the services they provide. In biomedical informatics, computational tools often appear front and center, but they are a means to an end, which is leveraging information to achieve the best possible health care while advancing the science of biomedical informatics in the process.”

The information managed by biomedical informatics experts varies depending on their focus. For example, in proteomics, a form of bioinformatics, scientists identify and study proteins, often to gather information about what happens when specific genes are modified.

Those working in the sub-specialty of clinical informatics focus on studying and optimizing information used for patient care.  

Data warehousing, another area of biomedical informatics, involves gathering, storing and managing data from electronic medical records and other health information systems. Data warehousing can be used for clinical and research purposes.

John Hutton, MD, professor of pediatrics and director of the bio-informatics division at Cincinnati Children’s, says a biomedical informatics focus really began in earnest at Cincinnati Children’s about six years ago.

He says it has grown primarily out of the needs of such a large provider of clinical care. After all, he adds, Cincinnati Children’s is one of the largest research intensive children’s hospitals in the United States and has the largest budget of any single hospital in Cincinnati.

“Informatics has developed here as needs have developed,” he says.

Companies have long ago began moving away from paper to a more modern system of data management, Hutton says, so why wouldn’t health care organizations?

Electronic medical records (EMR)—in wide use today—seem the most obvious biomedical informatics tool. Researchers at UC and Cincinnati Children’s have developed ways to use the EMR to notify physicians if patients need certain tests or if they qualify for clinical trial opportunities and to create data warehouses that support clinical research.

They have also created a drug recall alert for consumers through, a collaborative health-information Web site staffed by Ohio physicians, nurses and allied health professionals.

But there’s far more to biomedical informatics than the development of database tools and maximization of electronic medical records. UC researchers work on various aspects of the field from bioinformatics to telehealth.

In addition, educational programs to train future biomedical informaticians are a key part of academic biomedical informatics. UC and Cincinnati Children’s already have a track record of success.

At UC, Embi and colleagues have developed a 10x10 program in partnership with the American Medical Informatics Association to train students in the sub-specialty of clinical research informatics and they have recently launched a full research informatics track in the newly formed master’s program in clinical and translational research.

A public health informatics course is currently under development and informaticians from Cincinnati Children’s and UC’s department of environment health also actively teach students in a bioinformatics track in the biomedical engineering department.

These projects, which are part of the $23 million Clinical and Trans-lational Science Award to UC and Cincinnati Children’s, and existing biomedical informatics strengths on both sides of Albert Sabin Way, Embi says, are what will help make Cincinnati a national leader in the biomedical informatics field. 

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