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Northwestern Names Chief Research Informatics Officer

December 28, 2017
by David Raths
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Position created to integrate clinical research informatics applications at Feinberg and Northwestern Medicine
Firas Wehbe, M.D., Ph.D.

A few years ago, the chief medical information officer was the hot new title in health systems. Now chief research informatics officer roles are being created. For instance, the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine has created a new CRIO position to integrate clinical research informatics applications at Feinberg and Northwestern Medicine.

Firas Wehbe, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of Preventive Medicine in the Division of Health and Biomedical Informatics, has been appointed to the newly created role. He will oversee infrastructure development and advise on how best to reuse the tremendous volume of data generated by clinical operations for research.

The first job on Wehbe’s docket is ensuring the alignment of Feinberg clinical research systems with Project One, Northwestern Medicine’s research data integration effort. Project One is scheduled to launch in early 2018.

Wehbe currently serving as the director of clinical research informatics at the Northwestern University Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute (NUCATS) and as associate director for clinical informatics in the Quantitative Data Sciences Core at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University.

In a press release, he explained some of the efforts underway at Northwestern: “Over the last two years we’ve been working to enhance our clinical trial management and related systems to seamlessly interact with the Northwestern Memorial HealthCare clinical information systems,” he said. “We’ve revamped how electronic health records work with our Institutional Review Board system, our electronic data warehouse and any applications that use patient data.”

Once the systems are “speaking” to one another, Wehbe will turn his attention to ongoing improvements, including patient recruitment. Ensuring providers can see which studies are recruiting patients is important, Wehbe said, especially since patient encounters are very compressed and providers new to the Northwestern Medicine health system may be inexperienced with Northwestern Medicine research information systems.

“How do we find unobtrusive ways to insert information at the point of care so physicians recommend patients for trials?” Wehbe said. “We’ve learned a lot of lessons from Project One already, from the network and firewall levels all the way up to regulatory and finance concerns.”

However, the data flow isn’t just a one-way operation from the clinic to the lab. Emerging clinical programs, such as the OncoSET Precision Medicine Program, generate terabytes of research-derived data that can be used clinically to determine how advanced-stage tumors are treated.

In the press release, Wehbe noted that the phenomenon of new CRIO roles in institutions across the country is reminiscent of CMIO positions that proliferated when healthcare providers started transitioning to electronic medical records. “As medical records became digitized, there was a need for a chief physician advocate embedded in the information technology organization,” Wehbe said. “This decade we see the research side catching up.”


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