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The Big-Picture Logic Behind the University of Chicago’s New Biomedical Informatics Program

December 28, 2015
by Mark Hagland
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Dr. Samuel Volchenboum of the University of Chicago discusses the evolution of biomedical informatics programs

In late October, the University of Chicago established a new degree program, creating a master of science degree in biomedical informatics. The program is being offered by the University of Chicago Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies, and has brought together faculty members from genomic research, translational medicine, and computation, to offer the Master of Science Degree in Biomedical Informatics (MScBMI). The program combines “in-person instruction and industry-based capstone projects, made possible through relationships with healthcare organizations like Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois and nonprofit institutions such as NORC at the University of Chicago,” according to an Oct. 28 press release from the university.

As the university’s press release notes, “The MScBMI is designed for working adults. The part-time program offers an individualized approach to each student providing direct access to discussion-based classroom instruction and team-base experiences,” and has two faculty directors, David McClintock, M.D., an assistant professor of pathology and medical director of pathology informatics; and Samuel Volchenboum, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of pediatrics and director of the Center for Research Informatics at U of C.

Samuel Volchenboum, M.D., Ph.D.

Here is a link to the program’s core curriculum. As the program’s website notes, “Our curriculum has undergone scrutiny by faculty and industry partners to ensure its relevance and applicability to the current workforce needs in biomedical fields. The goal of the program is for students to learn and master the following: informatics methodology, applying tools and techniques to both research and applied problems in biomedical settings; effective communication with diverse professional audiences regarding informatics issues and solutions; management of biomedical informatics projects; understanding of the ethical, privacy, and data security issues in the field.”

Shortly after the inception of the program, Dr. Volchenboum spoke with HCI Editor-in-Chief Mark Hagland regarding the program specifically and the development of degree programs in medical informatics more broadly. Below are excerpts from that interview.

Congratulations on the launch of this new program. How long have you been involved in its development?

I’ve been involved in the programming of it for several years. And education is part of the mission of the group I run here at the hospital.

Where are things in terms of process right now?

People are being admitted to the program now; the first class will start in spring, in March.

How did you and your colleagues end up developing the concept for the program, and the program itself?

I’m a pediatric oncologist by training. I do a couple of weeks on service a year, and still do a clinic once in a while. I did an informatics fellowship at Boston Children’s Hospital, part of the Harvard Medical School/MIT program. So that was a tremendous opportunity for me to go back to school, and to advance in informatics, which I was always interested in. I did a pediatrics residency, followed by an oncology fellowship, and then an informatics fellowship. Then I took on a faculty position here at U of C, running a proteomics research lab.

Then I was presented in 2012 with an opportunity to help lead the Center for Research Informatics. Since 2012, I’ve been the center’s director, and we’ve grown into a group of 40 people that provides the informatics support for the Division of the Biological Sciences, which includes the research enterprise and the medical school.

The 40 people you’ve mentioned make up the research informatics group, then?

Yes, they’re all here to support research informatics. We have nine Ph.D bioniformaticians who do high-throughput genomics, for example. We do support research for the labs, as well as performing our own original research. Among other things, we are analyzing high-throughput, next-generation genomic sequencing data.

What’s the context for the evolution of formal education in bioinformatics?

When people talk about bioinformatics, they are normally talking about genomics and other kinds of computational analyses of large sets of data. A bioinformatician generally has training in the kinds of statistics and other kinds of math to do genomic sequencing or mapping. Bioinformatics, however, also includes medical informatics, which is related to patient care. While I have a foot strongly placed in both areas, most of our Graham School program is concentrated on biomedical informatics.

Historically—and even currently—biomedical informatics is something that most people have learned while doing it, correct? And this is not something that most CIOs or CMIOs in patient care organizations have much practical grounding in, right?

Yes, and per CIOs and CMIOs, we have a whole generation of physicians who are being asked to do jobs in the medical center for which they’re not sufficiently trained. It’s providing a lot of opportunities, but it’s not always ideal to learn on the job. It’s good and bad: you learn by doing projects, but at the same time, you can be prone to making mistakes.

But obviously, it is your belief that more formal biomedical informatics training is called for?