Q&A: What is 'biomedical informatics' and why is it important?

September 9, 2013 - 10:21am

The University of Nebraska at Omaha is at the cutting-edge of biomedical informatics, a field that basically looks at how to use all the medical data being collected from everything from clinical trials to electronic health records. The new UNO bioinformatics program, a subset of biomedical informatics, is one of only 14 undergraduate programs in the country; in this interview with NET News, the dean of UNO's College of Information Science and Technology sheds some light on why biomedical informatics is poised to become a vital field in American health care.


HILARY STOHS-KRAUSE, NET NEWS: What exactly is 'biomedical informatics' in layman’s terms? 

HESHAM H. ALI, DEAN OF THE COLLEGE OF INFORMATION SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY AT THE  UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA AT OMAHA: Biomedical informatics (BMI) is the science underlying the acquisition, maintenance, retrieval, and application of biomedical knowledge and information to improve patient care, medical education, and health sciences research.

Courtesy photo

Hesham H. Ali

(BMI) specialists are uniquely positioned to advance research and practice in contemporary information and communication technologies that impact healthcare services, healthcare practice, public health care, and healthcare delivery in general.  BMI is a discipline at the intersection of information science and technology, computer science, information systems and health care.

UNO’s College of Information Science and Technology offers an undergraduate degree (BS) in bioinformatics, a Master of Science in biomedical informatics and a PhD in Biomedical Informatics. In addition, Health Informatics is an area of specialization within the college’s Management Information Systems Master of Science degree program. 

NET NEWS: Can you give me a few examples of real-life situations where biomedical informatics could be used?

DEAN ALI: Advances in medical science and technology are appearing faster than we can assimilate them into practice.  It could be argued that the problem of employing IT in the medical domain is the most outstanding challenge of the coming decades.

Subfields within biomedical informatics:

  • Bioinformatics
  • Clinical/health/medical informatics
  • Biomedical imaging informatics
  • Public health informatics
One study showed that it takes an average of 17 years to translate new knowledge from randomized controlled trials into practice: "Medicine lacks an information infrastructure to efficiently connect those who produce and archive medical knowledge to those who must apply that knowledge. New innovative techniques are needed to deliver credible and substantial clinical evidence to the point of care where patient care decisions are made" ...  

Similarly, bioinformatics analysis of vast amounts of data produced by ongoing genomic DNA sequencing and mapping projects, such as the Human Genome Project, is expected to uncover hitherto unknown relationships between genes and diseases, have a profound impact on drug development and clinical trials, and affect medical diagnostics, pharmacogenomics and agricultural and industrial biotechnology.

NET NEWS: UNO is one of only 14 programs to offer an undergraduate degree in bioinformatics. What led to the development of UNO’s program? Why are there so few?

DEAN ALI: Our college started this program at a time when the application of computational techniques to biological data analysis was just in its infancy. Also, most researchers working in this area were either from computer science or biology who had retooled in the area they lacked. This led to the conclusion that the graduates of a bioinformatics program would fill the enormous need for individuals who have integrated training in the computer science and the biological sciences.

NET NEWS: As the use of electronic health records proliferates in the state – and the country – where do you see the biomedical informatics field in, say, 10 years?

Other Nebraska experts weigh in on biomedical informatics

"Most estimates will say we're anywhere between 50,000 and 75,000 health information technology 

workers short in this country, and yet there's a real bias in health care to not hire anybody who doesn't have health care experience. Even though you've been a project manager for 10 years, they may not hire you because you don't have exposure to health care."

-Todd Searls, director of Wide River TEC, a regional extension center that helps health care providers implement electronic health records


"I think one of the more important pieces is the informatics component, which is not just the technology, but how are we using the technology to address our needs? ... 

And this (UNO program) will go all the way from the large databases, the genomics, etc., through the clinical area into public health. And that may begin to provide more practictioners for the rural instutitons in Nebraska. "

-Cheryl Thompson, associate professor in the College of Nursing and assistant vice chancellor for Student Affairs at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha

DEAN ALI: Another key area of BMI is “Health Informatics,” which focuses on the study of IT in healthcare in all its facets. With the recent changes in healthcare laws and processes, the demand for individuals who understand information management and its impact on the needs of the healthcare sector is already growing exponentially over the next decade. 

Some authors argue that the explosive growth of biomedical complexity will also require a shift in the paradigm of medical decision making - from a focus on the power of an individual brain, to the collective power of systems of brains. This shift will alter professional roles and require biomedical informatics and information technology infrastructure. Embracing this collective and informatics-enhanced future of medicine will provide opportunities to advance education, patient care, and biomedical science.  All this is of course good news for UNO since we are well established to be a leader in the area of BMI education, training and research. 

NET NEWS: What kind of changes are necessary in educational institutions to ensure future healthcare workers are prepared for ongoing technological changes in their field?

DEAN ALI: Being nimble and innovative is important for any institution to be effective at training the next generation of healthcare professionals. We believe that every healthcare worker will need some information technology training; it is imperative that this training be integrated into their educational programs. The good news is that at UNO, we have already accepted this impending trend and include computer science fundamentals and six other IT-oriented classes as an optional course for satisfying general education requirement for undergraduate students on campus. In addition, at the graduate level, there are many options for students to take IT courses from our college as electives regardless of their major area of interest. 

NET NEWS: Is there anything you'd like to add?

DEAN ALI: For those with the interest and aptitude in science and technology, I can’t think of a better scientific discipline to explore for this generation. The demand for students with Biomedical Informatics education and training is summarized in the following quote from an article published in the IMIA Yearbook of Medical Informatics:  “These are exciting times for HIT (Health Information Technology), with its demonstrated value in improving health, health care, public health, and biomedical research and as a pathway to a fulfilling and rewarding career. Clearly there are numerous job opportunities, with several different studies showing the need for one IT or informatics staff per 50-60 non-informatics staff in a variety of organizations. Such jobs tend to pay well and offer opportunity for career advancement and satisfaction. Indeed, one US news magazine recently listed informatics among ten 'ahead of the curve' careers.”

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