As a master’s student in biomedical informatics at Columbia University in the late 1990s, Elizabeth Chen worked on a project in the Department of Computer Science that still sounds ambitious today. The former Tufts University computer science major contributed to a system called Multimedia Abstract Generation for Intensive Care (MAGIC) to help close an information gap between surgery and the intensive care unit. ICU staff needed to know what happened during surgery that might affect a patient’s care and recovery.
“Did something happen to their blood pressure or their pulse? What medications or what fluids were they given?” she said. “We used natural language generation to pull all that information together to create a narrative summary of what happened. We were also working with a graphics group in computer science so that as MAGIC is speaking about the patient, you could see on the body of the patient what’s going on.”
Chen has been in the biomedical informatics field ever since. She earned her Ph.D. in biomedical informatics at Columbia in 2004, then worked at Partners HealthCare and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and for the last six years has taught and conducted research at the University of Vermont. Throughout that time, Chen has contributed to the progress in which health care systems have increasingly captured useful data, and electronic systems have become more influential in how doctors, nurses, and insurers deliver care.
Now, as Chen comes to Brown to help lead the new Center for Biomedical Informatics as its associate director, she plans not only to usher in the future promise of the field but also to teach the lessons of its past. She will also serve as assistant professor of medical science and as assistant professor of health services, policy, and practice.
“I’ve seen cycles in the field as we keep looping back to the same things,” she said. “What we want to do here as part of informatics training is talk about the history, that so much has been done in the past. Many people think this is a new field, but it’s been around since the 1950s.”
IT and medicine have produced those cycles in large part because making health care delivery more effective and efficient through improved data capture, processing, communication, and application are immense and challenging endeavors. But seemingly every minute, new technologies allow people to try new ideas (or retry old ideas) to push toward those unchanging goals.
Mobile technologies are a particularly good example, Chen said. Ever since the days of “personal digital assistants” such as the Palm Pilot, people have developed and studied ways to employ them in helping clinicians get the accurate information they need right when they need it. Some of Chen’s early work delved deeply into those questions. Now as mobile devices and their connectivity have radically improved, the same ambitions can be realized much more powerfully. But biomedical informatics research is still important in discerning how they can best be designed, implemented, and evaluated.
Technology has also advanced in the service of other missions of biomedical informatics. Innovations in amassing and handling “Big Data” have been driving new efforts to produce basic biological knowledge, such as in genomics and proteomics, and to improve studies of population-wide issues in public health.
As part of the Brown Institute for Translational Science, the new center will emphasize all three areas: basic research (translational bioinformatics), clinical care (clinical informatics), and public health (public health informatics).
For example, one of Chen’s current projects, a collaboration with the University of Minnesota and University of Vermont, involves developing computational methods to mine electronic health record (EHR) data for yielding knowledge about how social, behavioral, and familial factors affect disease.
With new EHR systems taking hold in hospital groups and physician practices around the state, opportunities abound for future work, too. Chen said she’s excited to start up the new Center at Brown with her colleague and husband Indra Neil Sarkar.
“Nationally people are recognizing why you need an informatics group,” Chen said. “There’s a lot of potential.”