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HMS To Launch Biomedical Informatics Department

By Melanie Y. Fu and Jiwon Joung, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard Medical School will launch a new Department of Biomedical Informatics on July 1, according to HMS Dean Jeffrey S. Flier.

The new department will build on a center in biomedical informatics which was established in 2005, according to a letter from Flier to HMS affiliates this month.

HMS professor Isaac S. Kohane, co-director of the current Center for Biomedical Informatics, will serve as the inaugural chair of the new department, which will launch along with five core faculty members currently associated with the center. The new department will apply quantitative methods and software to biological data and officially open in the Longwood Medical Area in July.

According to Kohane, the new department will be at the intersection of statistics, computer science, and the life sciences and will aim to re-imagine a more quantitative approach to medical decision-making, revolutionize the patient-physician encounter, and create a comprehensive information database to aid physicians in providing care.

Kohane said that the focus of biomedical informatics on analyzing large datasets across many individuals allows for more personalized care that reaches beyond the mind of one doctor, comparing the ideal care model to the data prediction systems widely used by consumer websites.

“When you go to Amazon or Netflix, because they have seen literally thousands of people with similar preferences and histories to you, they are able to predict with a certain amount of accuracy what you’re going to buy, the next movie you’re going to see,” Kohane said. “In medicine, [doctors alone] don’t have in their head other patients like you and they won’t have a very data-driven sense of what your next move clinically is, so they’re flying more blindly.”

Kohane acknowledged concerns about patient privacy and ownership of data, pointing to the necessity of creating ways to respect patient autonomy while still fulfilling research goals.

Plans for the department have been in the works since as early as 2009, with negotiations prolonged partly due to the the field being seen as unconventional, according to Kohane.

“We don’t look like a standard department,” Kohane said. “We’re not disease-based. We’re not discipline-based. That’s not a conventional fit for the existing basic science departments, and it’s not a fit for communications departments… [Our faculty members] are part of physics departments and computer science departments [who] wanted to be more involved in some of the more biological questions.”

The department has also gained acclaim outside of the Harvard sphere. Russ B. Altman, director of the biomedical informatics program at Stanford, threw his support behind the project.

“This is important for Harvard because it has had somewhat distributed excellence in this field, and the opportunity to integrate the strengths will be important for building the future educational and research programs that are needed,” Altman said. “It is important more generally because Harvard is adding itself to the list of places that have made substantial commitments to biomedical informatics.”

HMS affiliates have also welcomed the launch of the new department, citing the potential developments it will pursue.

“I don’t see how you can have the next breakthroughs without informatics being front and center and it being at the core,” said Alexa T. McCray, co-director of CBMI and HMS associate professor.

—Staff writer Melanie Y. Fu can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @MelanieYFu.

—Staff writer Jiwon Joung can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @YunaJoung.

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