By Rachel Wittel
Connecting basic science and medicine with clinical and translational scientists, the University of Colorado School of Medicine introduced the Department of Biomedical Informatics (DBMI) to enhance clinical care through integrated computational technology, laboratory investigations, and artificial intelligence (AI).
The department’s faculty examine complex systems in biomedicine using big data to improve patient outcomes on the CU Anschutz Medical Campus. Focused on addressing heath disparities and improving quality in health care, the DBMI is committed to training the next generation of biological and clinical informaticists.
“I like to say we’re in the serendipity business. We need to put the right information in front of the right person at the right time to make the best possible decision,” says Casey Greene, PhD, founding chair of the DBMI and professor of biomedical informatics at the CU School of Medicine. “There’s a lot of opportunity for this on the Anschutz Medical Campus. What we see in the clinic and in basic science research can be connected using informatics technologies to learn from data and make a real, meaningful difference in the world.”
Greene was recruited to the CU School of Medicine in 2020 to lead the Center for Health AI, which will remain a pillar of the new department. Leveraging AI and Colorado’s diverse population, he and department faculty will have the ability to develop widespread solutions to serve people across the state and beyond.
“If we’re going to make a difference, we need scalable, data-driven technology,” he says. “Being in Colorado allows us the unique opportunity to work with a variety of clinical settings, from populations living in urban areas to populations living in rural areas. The partnerships that our faculty support with UCHealth and Children’s Hospital Colorado broaden our scope to build solutions that serve all Coloradans.”
The Department of Biomedical Informatics is the first new department established by the School of Medicine since 2008 when the Department of Emergency Medicine was created.
Collaboration with campus partners, hospital affiliates, and departments are integral to DBMI’s mission to improve patient care, which has led to the success of numerous projects on the CU Anschutz Medical Campus.
Tell Bennett, MD, MS, vice chair of clinical informatics for the new department, received a National Institutes of Health (NIH) R01 Award to develop novel criteria to modernize pediatric sepsis diagnoses and build clinical decision tools to support and improve patient outcomes.
Bennett, also a pediatric ICU physician at Children’s Colorado and director of informatics for the Colorado Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute (CCTSI), has also developed a COVID-19 dashboard that uses real-time electronic health records to predict decisions around the need for crisis care. He says the dashboard has been used by federal policymakers to make decisions about the pediatric COVID-19 response.
“One thing I have worked really hard to establish as part of the culture in this area of work is that we are folks who get things done to completion so they can translate to patients,” Bennett says. “We have the patient in mind, and we build tools focused on their needs, as opposed to stopping short of deployment, which is quite common.”
Bennett and Greene hope the momentum behind these initiatives translates to the expansion of their team.
“I see us as a bridging unit,” Greene says. “The nature of our discipline is inherently about finding these undiscovered connections, and I think we’re better when we establish strong links. It’s in our ethos as to how we recruit and build our faculty as well.”
“We’re going to be a unified academic home for people who work in biomedical informatics and across a few different silos,” Bennett adds. “We’ll come together with the infusion of new people, allowing us to grow the department’s breadth of expertise and our potential for impact on health care systems.”
Cultivating the next generation of biomedical informaticists from multiple areas of expertise, backgrounds, and skillsets is not only beneficial for patient outcomes, but is critical to advancing equity in the field.
“Deployments of AI come with a significant risk of increasing disparities,” Greene says. “Although the use of AI has spread significantly in recent years, the field lacks diversity and risks the reinforcement of harmful biases in the way data is collected, algorithms are developed, and findings are interpreted. As a department, we acknowledge the responsibility we have to change course by supporting a diverse faculty who do research in partnership with affected populations.”
To dispel these risks, DBMI leaders emphasize the importance of building trust. Ivana Yang, PhD, vice chair for faculty equity and advancement in the DBMI and professor of biomedical informatics and medicine in the CU School of Medicine, believes this begins with supporting the success of individuals within the department.
“We are launching the DBMI with a talented faculty who have diverse backgrounds and come from areas of research and education spanning the fields of biomedical informatics and personalized medicine. We will have opportunities to recruit additional talent to help us achieve our vision,” Yang says. “I have been at the University of Colorado for more than 10 years, and I’m thrilled to see this new department bring together informaticists from across our campus to work together.”
Having a comprehensive team in place lays the foundation for the department to elevate the involvement of diverse populations in its research and development of equitable solutions. Katrina Claw, PhD, an assistant professor in the DBMI and the Colorado Center for Personalized Medicine (CCPM), is already pursuing such research, studying pharmacogenomic approaches to drug metabolism in American Indian and Alaska Native People under an R35 Genomic Innovator Award. She’s utilizing an ethical, community-engaged framework to deepen research partnerships with Indigenous communities.
“Already, the DBMI has been supportive of my work with Indigenous communities in acknowledging that tribal sovereignty is an integral component to community-based participatory research and in thinking about how data is stored and used,” Claw says.
The DBMI is also partnering with the CU Anschutz Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion (DEI) and Community Engagement and the CU School of Medicine DEI Committee to establish policies and best practices for education and employment opportunities to succeed.
“In DBMI, we have the opportunity to build a supportive environment for faculty to do impactful research and teaching that fundamentally alter how we use data nationwide,” Greene says. “Starting a department provides a unique time to reflect on our missions as educators, clinicians, and researchers and to construct policies that advance these missions. We hope the department itself will position us for national leadership in the years ahead and become a model for academic units elsewhere.”