CIO Insight recently provided some insight into where biomedical informatics is heading in an article entitled The Future of Leadership - The Enabler. It tells the story of Sandy Aronson, Director of IT for the Harvard Medical School–Partners Healthcare Center for Genetics and Genomics. He's wrapping up an advanced degree, not in computer science or business management, but in molecular biology.
It's not often that an IT professional earns an advanced degree in an entirely unrelated field for the sake of his job. But to Aronson, it makes perfect sense. "As IT professionals, it's really important to understand the content area we work in with as much depth as possible," he says. "You need to understand the non-IT processes you are working to support, so you can play a positive, efficient role in the process." For Aronson, that process isn't just about cutting costs or improving productivity. Aronson's group supports a user base of more than 600 researchers, scientists, technicians and healthcare professionals, all working on genetic-based healthcare, a concept that could re-write the rules of modern medicine.
I understand totally where Sandy is coming from. My own Master's, which I'm inches from completing now, is in information science with a focus on Human-Computer Interface. I've learned a lot, but in the meantime I've been helping to maintain existing and design new clinical research informatics systems. I've had to learn continuously about many things there - HIPAA; the Common Rule for the protection of human subjects; 21 CFR Part 11 and other aspects of the FDA's Good Clinical Practice predicate rule as they apply to computer systems; information security; the culture of a major academic health center; clinic and laboratory practice; and even a smattering of biology and medicine.
I'm betting Sandy's experience is similar. No matter what you study in school, there is so much more to healthcare informatics that no single course of study is going to provide all the knowledge you will need.
It's an exciting time to be in biomedical informatics. I've written about the synergistic convergence of multiple disruptive information technologies in my Rogue Wave scenario paper, and this field exemplifies perfectly the characteristics of the convergence.
Disruptive technologies are uncommon but not rare. The twentieth century witnessed the birth of numerous such technologies. The major events of the past twenty-five years in the world of IT have been the result of the ascendance of two different disruptive technologies about a decade apart. The first disruptive technology was the introduction of the personal computer and in particular the IBM Personal Computer and Microsoft’s DOS operating system in the early 1980’s. The second was the emergence of the World-Wide Web in the early 1990’s. Each of these changed the face of life in the advanced economies of the world in ways most of us would certainly call significant. Yet the changes we have thus far experienced pale in comparison to what the next four years hold in store. The reason: as we stated earlier, what we are about to experience is not just another emergence of a single disruptive technology, but the synergistic convergence of multiple disruptive technologies.
What do we mean by “synergistic convergence”? Synergistic convergence means the technologies harmonize, their disruptive forces melding in additive fashion. Rather than mitigating the effects of each other, their energies join just as the energies of the sea combine to form the rogue wave.
Information technologies are by definition enablers for other technologies, which on the surface may not appear related to IT. I used to work in the automotive industry, and what I saw there was that IT was a pervasive influence, affecting the processes of design, manufacturing, and sales, and enabling better and faster diagnostics in the service bay.
This picture is very incomplete, of course. A modern automobile typically has multiple local-area networks embedded in it, with almost every dynamic aspect of the vehicle's operation under computer control. High-end vehicles are beginning to use information technologies like Doppler radar to implement adaptive cruise control, and can communicate by satellite with monitoring systems that respond instantaneously to events like extremely sudden stops and the deployment of the vehicle's air bags.
Modern automobiles are complex beasts, but any single organ in the human body is orders of magnitude more complex, operating under the dynamically adaptive control of genomic, proteomic, and metabolomic information systems (technologies?). Aronson's academic studies have no doubt provided him (directly or indirectly) with insights into the ways in which such systems can be represented and simulated. Even if his work is in the mundane arena of data processing that is used to manage clinical or basic science research operations, this knowledge will pay off.
I'm glad I focused on HCI, having seen how abysmal are even the best user interfaces in research and clinical IT, but if my budget and my wife will allow it, I can foresee further education in my future. It may focus on the complex knowledge domains on which Sandy has focused in obtaining his Master's degree. On the other hand, there are equally complex challenges in better understanding the cultural and socioeconomic dynamics operating within and between healthcare research organizations. It's a difficult choice. The Chinese curse applies: we have indeed been born into an interesting time.