Becoming a Leader in Health Informatics

The new dual-degree available to medical students will prepare them for board certification in clinical informatics. For UNC health informatics leaders, what's the end goal for the degree? That it becomes second to none.

Becoming a Leader in Health Informatics click to enlarge Sam Cykert, MD, Professor of Medicine and Director of the School of Medicine Program on Health and Clinical Informatics
Becoming a Leader in Health Informatics click to enlarge Javed Mostafa, PhD, Director of the Carolina Health Informatics Program

by Zach Read - zachary.read@unchealth.unc.edu

Health informatics, as much as any clinical subspecialty, requires interdisciplinary collaboration. Varied sets of expertise must merge to advance research and produce the effective data-sharing capabilities needed to improve patient care for individuals and populations.

We have a tremendous opportunity to become a leader in health informatics because of the geographical advantage we have. We can serve our people, not just in North Carolina, but throughout the region, because we’re developing the kind of educational and training programs that our citizens need. --Javed Mostafa, PhD, Director of CHIP

“Informatics brings people together,” says Javed Mostafa, PhD, Director of the Carolina Health Informatics Program (CHIP) at UNC. “It’s impossible to perform this kind of work in silos.”

At UNC, the collaborative nature of health informatics was recently exhibited by the development of the new Master of Professional Science (MPS) in Biomedical Health Informatics degree, which is available as a dual-degree option for medical students and graduate students this fall and is currently accepting applications from all prospective students.

The program, as well as the PhD program that will launch in 2016, includes participation from the School of Medicine, the Gillings School of Global Public Health, the Eshelman School of Pharmacy, the School of Nursing, the School of Dentistry, the School of Information and Library Science, the Department of Computer Science, and the Graduate School. The collective effort sets it apart from advanced-degree programs in health informatics at other universities.

“If you look at the top biomedical and health informatics programs in the U.S. – and arguably in the world – almost all of them are linked to just one or two schools,” Mostafa asserts. “For our programs, we have campus-wide collaboration that includes world-renowned schools. This allows us to take a comprehensive approach to advancing care for individuals and populations instead of focusing on just one aspect of health informatics.”

By valuing the perspectives of physicians, pharmacists, nurses, public health researchers, data analysts, information and computer scientists, and so many others, Mostafa is confident that new and different ways of looking at health-related challenges will result from the educational initiatives.

“Medicine gains by having additional ways of looking at health care,” he continues. “Our varied curriculum structure allows the opportunity to look at health care not in isolation – not as one disease or in one group – but more broadly, which makes data more generalizable across populations and new findings and treatments possible.”

Sam Cykert, MD, professor of medicine, is director of the School of Medicine Program on Health and Clinical Informatics.

“We’re bringing together people who look at the world through different lenses,” says Cykert. “It’s invaluable for doctors to be able to be able to view care through the lens of a pharmacist and what goes wrong in a drug system, or a public health expert who wants to motivate people to exercise by building neighborhoods with walking paths, or a nurse who spends much more time at the bedside….Taking advantage of all these points of view and thinking about how systems fit together on the computer side and in the health world will make better doctors.”

The Master’s program – and eventually the PhD – will allow health professionals and medical students to engage with health informaticians from information and computer science. The dialogues will provide information and computer scientists greater understanding of health care concerns so that they can refine the data collection systems they’re imagining and building.

We’re bringing together people who look at the world through different lenses....Taking advantage of all these points of view and thinking about how systems fit together on the computer side and in the health world will make better doctors. --Sam Cykert, MD, Director of the School of Medicine Program on Health and Clinical Informatics

“The computer scientist may have the most intricate view of how to put together a program or an algorithm that can find community hotspots for certain health situations or conditions, but if that knowledge isn’t combined with the public health professional’s expertise, how are you going to program it in a way that effectively presents information?” asks Cykert.

Carolina’s advanced-degree programs arrive at just the right time. Only two other biomedical health informatics programs in the region have a similarly comprehensive approach to health informatics – Emory and Vanderbilt.

“We have a tremendous opportunity to become a leader in health informatics because of the geographical advantage we have,” says Mostafa. “We can serve our people, not just in North Carolina, but throughout the region, because we’re developing the kind of educational and training programs that our citizens need….We’re also fortunate in our proximity to RTP. Businesses and industries located there need the kind of training we’re now providing clinicians and students around the university, and they’ll be looking for new, advanced techniques, tools, and services in health care.”

According to Mostafa, simple geography explains part of the success UNC’s informatics future promises. He spent the early part of his career at Indiana University, where health informatics is a priority.

“The way the program elements were structured at IU was challenging because the medical concentration is in Indianapolis but the main campus is in Bloomington, about an hour distance,” says Mostafa. “And there were challenges in the way the program was structured going across schools and units. Having all those key programs on one campus – the world-renowned public health and medical schools, nursing, pharmacy, and so on – will be a huge benefit.”

The Master’s program developed out of the research and training opportunities available to graduate students and others through CHIP and was designed to help future graduates through the recently established board certification in clinical informatics.

“The program is designed to provide students a remarkable opportunity to gain a real-world understanding of biomedical and health informatics,” says Heidi Harkins, PhD, MPH, director of the Professional Science Master’s Programs in the Graduate School. “Students will finish the program prepared to use their training, and medical students will have the background to gain board certification from the American Medical Informatics Association.” 

As medical students begin to take advantage of the varied expertise available to them across campus, Cykert expects the MPS in Biomedical and Health Informatics to become as valuable to medical students as the Master’s of Public Health (MPH). Thirty-four students received a dual MD/MPH degree in 2014.

“By giving our medical students the opportunity to get their MPH at the best public health school in the country, we offer them an experience they can’t get anywhere else,” says Cykert. “I expect the same to be true for the MPS in Biomedical and Health Informatics. And by tying the informatics systems that create new models of care to the clinical and population health, we will push the needle in terms of care improvement and better health outcomes for North Carolinians.”

The deadline to apply for Fall 2014 admission is June 10, 2014. For more information about the program, visit the Web site: http://chip.unc.edu/mps-bmhi/.To apply through UNC-CH’s graduate application system, go to: http://gradschool.unc.edu/admissions/instructions.html.