An Algorithm for Change

The MET Health Informatics team, seated, left to right: Professor Vladimir Brusic, associate director of the Health Informatics program; Associate Dean Lou Chitkushev, director of the Health Informatics program; and Assistant Professor Guanglan Zhang, faculty coordinator of the Health Informatics program. Standing, left to right: graduate assistants Garima Kumari and Jeff Andre, with Dr. Jing Sun.

MET’s Health Informatics program prepares students for critical roles.

This May will see the first Metropolitan College students graduating with a concentration in Health Informatics from the master’s degree program in Computer Information Systems (MSCIS). Armed with the expertise of an interdisciplinary education in health care and information technology, these graduates will be well-prepared for the burgeoning health care IT industry.

It’s an ideal time time to enter the field. The Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH)—part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009—recently earmarked 27 billion dollars to fund the adoption and “meaningful use” of electronic health records (EHRs), which will revolutionize health care by enabling physicians and care providers to access comprehensive patient records and treatment history. The deployment of EHRs, however, relies upon professionals who possess interdisciplinary knowledge of health care and information technology—and who can develop effective algorithms, analyze big data, and provide tools to help visualize that data for end-users.

It turns out such professionals are in short supply.

“There is a chronic need for people who are expert developers and, particularly, who can customize health care software to meet the needs of specific institutions,” notes Dr. Vladimir Brusic, who is adjunct professor of computer science and associate director of the health informatics program at MET, as well as director of bioinformatics at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute Cancer Vaccine Center. “MET’s program is designed to address that need.”

Brusic points out that, unlike most other health informatics programs in the U.S.—traditionally offered by medical and nursing schools, and focusing on training EHR super-users—MET’s program is computer science-based, offering the degree concentration in Health Informatics online and on campus through the MSCIS. MET also offers four-course graduate certificates in Health Informatics, Medical Information Security and Privacy, and Software Engineering in Health Care Systems.

“The MET program is unique in terms of the population of students it serves, namely those in the technology field…”

According to Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Lou Chitkushev (ENG’96), associate dean of academic affairs and director of the health informatics program, the health informatics initiative at MET started about ten years ago with the cultivation of several courses that integrated health informatics and computer science. The first course in this area, Health Informatics (CS 580), was introduced on campus in Fall 2009. The MSCIS concentration in Health Informatics—approved in December 2010, established on campus in Spring 2011, and launched online in Summer 2012—was developed by a task force consisting of Chitkushev and Brusic along with MET professors Guanglan Zhang, Tanya Zlateva, Michael Levinger, and Bob Schudy, as well as several part-time faculty, facilitators, and graduate students. Chitkushev contends that the MET program is unique in terms of the population of students it serves, namely those in the technology field who wish to take advantage of rich opportunities in Boston’s thriving health care industry. As part of its coming of age, the program is currently under review for accreditation by the Commission on Accreditation for Health Informatics and Information Management Education (CAHIIM).

MET benefits from having uniquely qualified faculty with the requisite background in both computer science and health care, such as Assistant Professor Guanglan Zhang, who is the faculty coordinator of MET’s health informatics program. Zhang holds a doctorate in computer engineering and served as senior bioinformatics engineer at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and research associate at Harvard Medical School prior to starting at MET in the fall of 2012. “We can impart to students health care concepts to help them bridge the gap between information technology and the field of health care,” says Zhang.

Learn more about MET’s HILab. Read our Q&A with graduate student Garima Kumari.

While students in the program aren’t expected to conduct research, they have a very good opportunity to do so thanks to the MET Health Informatics Research Lab (HILab), which was established to contribute to the improvement of health care through collaborative research and development in health informatics, bioinformatics, and clinical research. Professors Chitkushev, Zhang, and Brusic—along with Dean Zlateva—have been leading the research efforts of the lab. They are supported by Dr. Jing Sun—a post-doctoral researcher at Brusic’s Bioinformatics Core Lab at the Cancer Vaccine Center who collaborates with HILab—and graduate student assistants Jeff Andre and Garima Kumari.

“Dr. Brusic and I have been collaborating on several projects, including medical algorithm cataloging and implementation, biological data visualization, data mining and knowledge discovery in complex large-data sets, and computational modeling of complex biological processes, such as the identification of vaccine targets,” explains Zhang. “Together, we also contribute to the research community by organizing conferences, workshops, academic competitions, and serving on workshop program committees.”

This past September, Zhang, Chitkushev, and Brusic—together with several colleagues from other universities—organized the fourth Immunoinformatics and Computational Immunology Workshop (ICIW 2013), held in conjunction with the ACM Conference on Bioinformatics, Computational Biology, and Biomedical Informatics in Washington, D.C.

The research agenda of the HILab also infuses the classroom with vital, relevant industry knowledge. “Part of the philosophy of the HILab is to translate our research into applicable teaching tools for the Health Informatics program,” notes Brusic, pointing out the need for accurate algorithms in areas such as type 2 diabetes treatment. “We discovered that among more than twenty reported algorithms for diabetes treatment, not a single one was formally correct from the computer science perspective. Physicians who design treatment algorithms do not have on their teams information scientists who can help them translate treatments into a proper algorithm that can be seamlessly integrated into the EHR. We see that as an opportunity to set up standards that will improve medical decision support and usability of EHRs. We are establishing the HILab as a resource for the standardization and cataloging of medical algorithms, development of classification algorithms for health care, and implementation of knowledge-based systems for biomedicine.”

“Along with the analytics and algorithms, visualization of data is an area of enormous potential”

Chitkushev stresses that, along with the analytics and algorithms, visualization of data is an area of enormous potential—one requiring highly trained IT professionals. “We have been bombarded by quantitative approaches across all fields within the health sciences. This trend will only become more intense. There is essential need for IT professionals who can take data and make it understandable and available to health professionals.”

The HILab simultaneously supports education and research in health informatics by engaging faculty and students in research projects, to position the Computer Science department as a leader in health IT. As Brusic notes, “The students are impressed because they see that we are doing something that is real and relevant—not something taken from the textbook, but something that happens right here.”

Kumari, the graduate assistant, agrees. “MET’s program offers an excellent research environment for students. I have analyzed medical research papers and applied that analysis in the assessment of medical algorithms,” she says. “We implemented the algorithms and medical calculators as part of the Health Informatics program’s web-based teaching tool, which provides students with useful information on diseases, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention.”

The profile of MET’s health informatics students is diverse and interdisciplinary. Some students have a background in computer science and wish to enter the health care industry. Others are medical professionals who want to learn health informatics. The rest are those already in the field.

“About 25 percent of our students are health informatics practitioners who have joined our program to formalize their knowledge and basically round it up. What I find very encouraging is that their number is increasing,” says Brusic.

The collaborative spirit of the HILab has resulted in grant proposals, several publications, and ongoing research projects. Zhang and Brusic have recently completed two grant proposals, including “Development of Next-Generation Immunogenicity Prediction Tools,” a two-year research plan that will be funded by Pfizer, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies. The grant will support the development of new algorithms that have a high degree of accuracy for predicting immunogenicity.

“The outcome would be a new, better algorithm that will exist in the field for assessment of how people respond to proteins, so we can analyze the drugs that are in development or have been rejected before because of undesirable side effects,” explains Brusic. “The practical application is that new drugs will be safer, and older drugs can be revisited. This is high-level research that is shared among Dana-Farber, MET, and Pfizer, and will include researchers from around the world. It is important to have such interdisciplinary collaborations to advance the field of biomedicine.”

“Modern academic programs must combine research with teaching to provide synergistic effects,” concludes Chitkushev. “Educational and research components have to go hand-in-hand—and we have achieved that union in a profound way.”

Graduate Student Garima Kumari

Garima Kumari

MS in Computer Information Systems, Health Informatics concentration
Anticipated graduation date: 2015

As a graduate assistant in MET’s Department of Computer Science, Garima Kumari works in MET’s Health Informatics Research Lab (HILab). Metropolitan had an opportunity to ask Ms. Kumari some questions about MET’s Health Informatics program and her role as graduate assistant:

Metropolitan: What is your background, IT or health care?

I have an undergraduate degree in computer science, and I have also successfully completed and implemented several IT projects. My strength is in programming.

Why did you choose to study health informatics?

The Computer Information Systems Health Informatics concentration provides an interdisciplinary, integrated approach to the fields of health care and information technology. I want to work in the health care industry, and studying health informatics aligns my undergraduate focus in computer science with my career goal. Also, information technology lags behind significantly in the health care industry, when compared to other industries.

Why did you choose the program at BU’s Metropolitan College?

Boston University is one of the most renowned universities in the world, and Metropolitan College provides the best learning environment and experience in health informatics. My professors have rich industry experience that helps expose students to the latest technologies, work, and practical knowledge in the field. Also, MET’s program offers an excellent research environment for students.

What is your role as a graduate assistant?

I have analyzed medical research papers and applied that analysis in the assessment of medical algorithms. We implemented the algorithms and medical calculators as part of the Health Informatics program’s web-based teaching tool, which provides students with useful information on diseases, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention. At present, I am working as an administrator to provide a platform for web development work at HILab.

How does being a graduate assistant influence your coursework and studies?

The role will help me to achieve my career goals by giving me actual health informatics work experience.

Would you recommend the program to other students?

Yes, definitely. The Health Informatics program is producing a top-quality pool of talent for the health care industry that will positively affect patient care in multiple ways. I definitely recommend this program to anyone who wants to gain, or enhance, knowledge and skills in health care informatics, or who seeks job opportunities in the field. MET’s Health Informatics program provides a strong platform in information technology as well as health care. Faculty members are very knowledgeable, helpful, and have rich industry experience.

What is the value of having trained IT professionals in today’s health care industry?

Health care IT professionals play a vital role. They’ll help push the industry to the next level, to sync up with other industries, and will help facilitate Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH) and meaningful use initiatives. They help enable faster, cost-effective, high-quality care.