New Institute of Biomedical Informatics

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A new Institute of Biomedical Informatics at the University of Kentucky will integrate and leverage large data systems across the academic and medical enterprise to improve patient care, research and education. GQ Zhang, Ph.D., will join UK Aug. 1 as director of the institute. He will also serve as chief of the newly established biomedical informatics division in the UK College of Medicine and co-director of the biomedical informatics core of the UK Center for Clinical and Translational Science.

The establishment of the institute and recruitment of Zhang and his research team reflect an enhanced investment in biomedical informatics across the UK campus and health care system.

"Dr. Zhang is an outstanding researcher with a long history of very innovative research, and he is able to bridge between basic science, translational science, and clinical science," said UK Provost Tim Tracy. "As universities look at clinical and translational science, they must have a strong biomedical informatics infrastructure to ensure that they can collect data and interface data systems across health care, research, and academic enterprises to find solutions to intractable problems that have been difficult to solve without adequate informatics capabilities."

Most recently the division chief of medical informatics and professor of computer science at Case Western Reserve University, Zhang brings to UK not only his extensive experience in integrating engineering, computer science, and medicine, but also an expert research team actively working on two national center grants from the National Institutes of Health.  Under his leadership, the UK Institute of Biomedical Informatics will facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration to integrate and utilize data that supports a learning health system and improved patient care. A primary asset is UK's Enterprise Data Trust (EDT), which holds massive and complicated data sets of institutional, state, and third-party payer health information requiring innovative approaches to unlock the knowledge embedded within.

"We want to consolidate and coordinate campus-wide efforts in the area of data science and informatics. We are increasingly facing large volumes of complex data that are more challenging to manage and take advantage of. The challenges are technological as well as cultural and regulatory," said Zhang.

According to Zhang, the era of "big data" and the complexity of modern health problems necessitate a new paradigm in how clinicians and investigators conduct research, deliver health care services, and provide education. A primary challenge in managing and leveraging biomedical data is that it's collected across contexts such as research versus clinical care, points in time (current versus past), and technology systems with different designs and terminologies. Zhang and his team have a nationally visible track record of addressing these challenges through innovations in computer science, such as knowledge representation, machine learning, and cloud computing. Specifically, they translate software engineering methodology and advanced computational algorithms into robust tools that enable data collection, integration, and exploration across the spectrum of the data life cycle.

"To be able to take advantage of the information generated during patient care, and to be able to achieve a learning health system and provide precision medicine, we need to take full advantage of the information generated through the entire process and link all types of information together. This has been one of the grand challenges in the clinical and biomedical enterprises," Zhang said.

Dr. Michael Karpf, UK executive vice president for health affairs at UK, recognizes the need for an innovative biomedical informatics enterprise that informs and supports the highest quality patient care.

"At UK we provide care to Kentuckians and others throughout their lives. If we want to understand health experiences across the lifespan, improve patient outcomes, and deliver care most efficiently, we need to be able to utilize all the relevant information available to us. Only with objective data on effectiveness, outcomes, and research can we make the most informed decisions for improving people's lives, " he said.

Zhang will also guide the expansion of biomedical informatics education and training at UK, including the development of new graduate programs in the College of Engineering. Since biomedical informatics is an emerging and rapidly changing field, integrated training programs must consider dynamic and expanding workforce needs. Zhang plans to address both the supply and demand challenges of the biomedical informatics workforce by training of the next generation of informaticians here at UK.

"We need to be training the biomedical informaticians of the future. To be able to use complicated data sets for research and clinical purpose requires significant computer science knowledge and innovation," said Dr. Philip Kern, director of the UK Center for Clinical and Translational Science (CCTS), an interdisciplinary research center funded by the NIH to accelerate discoveries for human health.

While the biomedical informatics graduate program will be housed in the College of Engineering, students will work directly with physicians in the medical center and researchers in the academic domain to gain real-world experience in health data science and communicating across disciplines.

"This is a change from the traditional approach. The students will graduate more market ready than they would otherwise be if they only trained in the classroom," said Zhang.

In his role as co-director of the biomedical informatics core of the CCTS, Zhang will oversee provision of informatics services and resources to researchers across specialties.

"This is never a one-man effort," said Zhang. "Particularly in the informatics domain, it's team work including a spectrum of people, from regulatory to information technology to domain experts and staff and students."

MEDIA CONTACT: Mallory Powell, Mallory.powell@uky.edu