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Informatics professionals meet in DC at AMIA's 35th Annual Symposium

Washington, DC -- The 35th Annual Symposium on Biomedical and Health Informatics opened this week with keynote speaker Dr. Francis S. Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, addressing a crowd of more than two thousand professionals who are engaged in translational bioinformatics, clinical research informatics, clinical informatics, public health informatics, and consumer health informatics.

The Symposium's theme, "Improving Health: Informatics and IT Changing the World," highlights the herculean agenda informatics professionals have assumed in enabling translational science through the use of information technology, electronic health records, on-the-spot clinical decision support, and methods that include data mining, interactive systems, biosurveillance, simulation and modeling, and development of standardized terminologies for specific applications and designs. Energized by the recent decision of the American Board of Medical Specialties to recognize Clinical Informatics as a board-certified medical subspecialty, the informatics community is gaining momentum in several key areas: growing its workforce through new and strengthened training programs at federally funded universities and community colleges, sharing informatics knowledge, experience, and expertise in a broad array of topics related to information technology and informatics applications, and reaching out across disciplines to health-related professionals in industry, research, clinical care, health policy, and education.

In his opening keynote, Dr. Collins provided a summary of the enabling role of informatics and computation in the evolution of genomics and DNA sequencing. He discussed the basic pillars of research and advancing medical science, identifying computational biology and bioinformatics as major supports to advancements in biomedical research and combating cancer and other life-threatening diseases and chronic conditions. He also discussed the planned National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), designed to speed up the process of "rescuing and repurposing" drug therapies out of the lab and into advanced clinical trials. The expectation, Dr. Collins said, is for NCATS to continue the work of the Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) -- all of which are required to leverage informatics as a core component of their scientific structure.

"In the ten years since the genome sequence was completed," said Dr. Collins, "the economic return resulted in a return on investment of 141:1 -- a $3 billion investment led to $790 billion of economic growth. We should not be shy to point out that medical research is not only a wonderful way to plan for a revolutionizing of medicine that is more effective and gives people a change to live healthy lives, but also is one of the best things we can do to nurture the American economy."

In his remarks during the opening session, Scientific Program Committee Chair R. Scott Evans, PhD, of Intermountain Healthcare, University of Utah, indicated that informatics had captured the imagination of mainstream America during the past year, when Watson of Jeopardy! fame triumphed over the human intellect of two long-running champions. An example of computer-assimilated intelligence, Watson is a robotic expression of how computerized health systems and informatics could one day support quality healthcare delivery. A panel composed of the Watson strategy team from IBM (Watson's creator), and clinical experts from Columbia University and University of Maryland School of Medicine is scheduled to take place Tuesday morning at 8:30 a.m. to examine how Watson might succeed as a clinical decision support tool, once he is tutored through medical school!

In remarks about the growth of Symposium attendance and the burgeoning field of informatics, AMIA President and CEO Edward H. Shortliffe, MD, PhD, FACMI, said, "The informatics community has a vision of remarkable ingenuity and impact: to improve health locally, nationally, and globally by connecting, collecting, and making available for exchange the vast stores of research data and evidence that are available; and mining that knowledge to benefit patients and populations everywhere. The implications are enormous," he noted, "health equity for all, standard quality care across communities and borders, and a cooperative, collegial community in terms of knowledge resources and tools." He added, "The transformation is underway -- AMIA is where this collective vision and know-how come together."

This morning's keynote speaker Gregory Abowd, PhD, Distinguished Professor, School of Interactive Computing, Georgia Tech, discussed his research that focuses on using "ubiquitous computing technology" to promote better health outcomes and health management. Dr. Abowd described living labs instrumented with body sensors, cameras, microphones, and sensors embedded in objects to support judgment of human behavior, and the use of mobile phones and text messaging to extend health surveys that support better health management of chronic illnesses. The latter health management intervention resulted in a response rate of 87% among children with asthma, ages 8-16. Dr. Abowd projected that "within five years, the majority of clinically relevant data will be collected in non-clinical settings." Along with the use of mobile phones, which are ubiquitous among many households, his goal, he said, "is to tap into a home's infrastructure to sense and infer about human activity." Ultimately, Dr. Abowd suggested, such information could answer questions like 'What does a healthy lifestyle look like?'

A late-breaking session held yesterday examined Sorrell vs. IMS Health, a legal case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court for a decision that challenged Vermont legislation, which attempted to limit the ability of pharmaceutical companies to use analysis of large clinical datasets to support marketing activities with physicians. The case underscores the ethical considerations inherent to secondary uses of health information -- an issue of critical importance in the informatics community.

Contact: Nancy Light
American Medical Informatics Association

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