University of Virginia Named Newest Site for National Library of Medicine Informatics Research Training Program

Feb. 19, 2007 — The University of Virginia will become one of the National Library of Medicine’s 18 national sites providing training in medical informatics starting in June 2007.

The U.Va. program is a collaboration between the School of Engineering and Applied Science, with a focus in the Department of Systems and Information Engineering, and the School of Medicine, with a focus in the Clinical Informatics Division of the Department of Public Health.

The program was developed in response to a report released by the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine in 2005 titled “Building a Better Delivery System: A New Engineering/Health Care Partnership.” The report calls for a research partnership between engineering and health care to apply systems engineering techniques to problems in health care delivery and quality. The goal of the new U. Va. program is to create the future research leaders who will respond to this call.

“The grant reviewers specifically cited U.Va. as one of the only places in the country that could even propose such a research and training model,” said Stephanie Guerlain, associate professor in the Systems and Information Engineering Department who will lead the engineering portion of the program “They were particularly impressed with the proposed collaborations with medical faculty and staff who are in full support of the idea of using systems engineering methods to address health care process challenges.”

The medical portion of the program is lead by Dr. James Harrison, who directs the Division of Clinical Informatics in Public Health Sciences, and includes faculty from a number of School of Medicine departments.

“The primary focus is to apply techniques of  systems engineering, which have been widely used to optimize  efficiency, improve effectiveness, and reduce errors in other  industries, to the delivery of medical care in inpatient, outpatient  and community settings,” Dr. Harrison said. “Systems engineering has the special quality that possible improvements or changes in the workflow or tools of  care delivery are not considered in isolation but are evaluated by the effect they have on the overall system — and performance of the overall system is the goal.”

The NLM, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, has awarded 18 five-year grants, totaling more than $75 million for research training in biomedical informatics, the discipline that seeks to apply computer and communications technology to the field of health.  By funding these programs, NLM supports nearly 300 pre- and post-doctoral trainees each year. For more than 30 years, NLM has been the principal supporter of biomedical informatics research training in the U.S.

“Health care issues continue to present a variety of challenges to our society,” said James H. Aylor, dean of the Engineering School. “This program will comprehensively prepare trainees in a unique collaborative environment to confront these challenges.”

The program will provide funding over a minimum of 5 years and support up to a yearly total of 18 Ph.D. and postdoctoral trainees. The training program will be administered by the Dept. of Systems Engineering and degrees will be conferred by the School of Engineering with an additional requirement for medical informatics didactics and healthcare-related research. Trainees will be recruited both from engineering and biomedical science pools.

Specific research areas that trainees may choose to pursue include the design of clinical training and decision support systems, improvements in electronic health records and physician communication tools, and optimization of information management to improve healthcare quality and outcomes, among others. The pre-doctoral program is designed as a five-year Ph.D. beyond the B.S. or a three-year Ph.D. beyond the M.S. The postdoctoral program for those holding a doctoral degree who would like to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship in medical informatics is designed as a two-year M.S. in systems and information engineering.

Guerlain attributes the receipt of the award to its focus on interdisciplinary and collaborative initiatives beginning with the proposal’s development. “The proposal was truly a collaborative effort among the Department of Systems and Information Engineering (particularly assistant professors Ellen Bass and Gregory Gerling); the Department of Public Health Sciences in the U.Va. Medical School; and all of the collaborators in the Medical School, Nursing School and University hospital,” she said.

The 18 NLM Informatics Training Program sites over the next 5 years are distributed geographically throughout the U.S. The programs offer graduate degrees or intense research experiences in health care/clinical informatics, bioinformatics, computational biology, translational informatics, public health informatics, and imaging and signal processing. Program site locations include: the University of California, Irvine; the University of California, Los Angeles;, Stanford University; the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center; Yale University; Indiana University; Harvard University; Johns Hopkins University; the University of Missouri, Columbia; Columbia University Health Sciences; the Oregon Health & Science University; the University of Pittsburgh; Vanderbilt University; Rice University; the University of Utah; the University of Virginia; the University of Washington; and the University of Wisconsin, Madison.