Harvard Medical School Is Creating a New Department

It will become on official part of the university's medical school in July 2015.

tktktktk. photo provided to bostonmagazine.com.

A photo of Gordon Hall, the main building on Harvard’s medical campus. photo provided to bostonmagazine.com.

Harvard Medical School will create a new department of biomedical informatics, according to a recent announcement from the school’s dean, Jeffrey S. Flier. The department will gain official recognition this July, and will be manned by five faculty members currently affiliated with the university’s Center for Biomedical Informatics (CBMI).

Biomedical informatics “studies and applies theories, methods and processes for the generation, storage, retrieval, use, and sharing of biomedical data, information, and knowledge,” according to the American Medical Informatics Association. Isaac Kohane, CBMI co-director and the chairman of the new biomedical informatics department, says that advancements in this field will enable medical care providers to do for patients what online retailer Amazon already does for its customers: make predictions and assessments based on not only their personal histories, but on the histories of others.

“Amazon knows what you might like to buy based on what you’ve bought before. When you go to see your doctor, you expect her to know your past history and how other patients with similar histories responded to medications. You expect her to know all the relevant science and the latest articles and clinical trials,” Kohane says. “A physician cannot actually do even the modest acts of prediction and diagnoses that Amazon does by virtue of looking across millions of customers.”

Kohane says that many hospitals are using outdated technology when it comes to communicating information about patient populations. In utilizing the concepts of biomedical informatics, Kohane believes that hospitals will have more “sophisticated and flexible” ways of accessing that data, which can lead to more informed decisions about patient care.

“Medicine is so data-rich now,” Kohane says. “We need to train individuals to seek answers and interpret data, and provide the infrastructure needed to make sound decisions without having to memorize an impossible amount of knowledge.”

The new department will focus its research efforts in a variety of areas, including cancer genomics and disorders such as autism and ADHD. The department will also be exploring a spectrum of undiagnosed diseases, which Kohane says affects thousands of people. By collaborating with colleagues from other fields to examine large data sets, Kohane says that clinicians will be able to make meaningful diagnoses that may have been otherwise overlooked.

“In having this department, we will be encouraging multidisciplinary study to accelerate the evolution of medicine from an artisanal effort to a much more systematic, organized, and data-driven effort,” Kohane says.