Driving data in precision medicine

Written by Philip Payne, PhD, FACMI, the Robert J. Terry Professor and founding director of the Institute for Informatics at the School of Medicine

A recent talk with digital health innovators at the mHealth Israel meetup in January, 2018. Partnerships between academic institutions, health systems, and tech companies are critical to solving real-world problems and generating value.

When I am asked to speak to the general public about the emerging role of informatics, I often start with an unusual example: buying an airline ticket.

If I were to talk to an airline representative at an airport anywhere in the world, or make a call to a customer service representative, or access a web site or mobile phone application, my personal preferences and details are always available and can be used expedite a purchase of a ticket, a change in an itinerary, or to make travel easier or more enjoyable. These individuals or tools know my travel history, my preferred mode of payment, what types of seats I like to sit in on any number of airplanes, as well as the types of special meals I might like to order. In effect, they are able to personalize my experience as a traveler, using all of the data they have collected about me, over many, many years of travel.

This example illustrates how much of our daily lives are impacted by the data-driven advances, and I could have given similar examples from shopping online to interacting with social media. However, when it comes to visiting a doctor, we still have substantial work to do in order to realize the ongoing impact of data-driven and personalized wellness promotion and care delivery. Addressing this set of needs is the core focus of the scientific field we call biomedical informatics, or just informatics to be more concise.

I want people to view informatics as the broker that sits between technology and the social sciences. For example, as researchers, we all want access high-quality data so we can build the evidence base that will support personalized medicine. Informaticians know how to both gather that high-quality data and then effectively implement new evidence and innovations informed by that data at the point-of-care and beyond.

I want people to view informatics as the broker that sits between technology and the social sciences.

Driving Data in Precision Medicine

At Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, we are fortunate to have vast quantities of bio-molecular, clinical, and population-level data. The field of informatics is focused on helping physicians and researchers know the right questions to ask and answer given such data collections.

Informatics methods are essential in determining how to connect the dots between millions of data points, how to contextualize them with the best available scientific knowledge, and then how to deliver the findings produced by analyzing such data back to clinicians and patients so that they can collectively make better and more efficient decisions.

Despite the promise of informatics, one of the ongoing challenges facing the field is determining how to deliver data, information, and knowledge in a way that is both user-friendly and properly integrated with the clinical workflow or patient preferences. By continuing to work to overcome these challenges, we will ultimately be able to make the lives of healthcare providers, patients, their families, and their communities better. This is what motivates us as a field and as individual researchers and leaders in the field of informatics.

Translating Discovery Into Action With Global Impact

One of the important opportunities we have as informaticians is to recognize when the discoveries we generate in our labs or universities have the potential to have broad impact, and then taking measures to realize such benefit, often via the commercialization of such technologies or through the creation of regional, national, and international partnerships. For example, as the founder of an informartics-focused startup, I am always looking for new opportunities to engage with strategic industry partners as means to broadening the scope and impact of our precision medicine initiatives and the tools we develop to enable those endeavors.

Similarly, the recent partnership between WUSM and MDClone is a great example of the power of data entrepreneurship and public-private partnerships that can accelerate informatics research and applications. Via this collaboration, we will be able to use and extend MDClone’s unique data synthesis technology in order make more of our data accessible to more researchers and collaborators than ever before. Simultaneously, this approach will allow us to protect patient privacy and confidentiality at a level that is unprecedented as compared to traditional approaches to data de-identification. This new platform allows us to view our data as a strategic asset, so that every patient encounter becomes an opportunity to learn and improve that individual’s care, their families’ care, and the care that their community receives, all through the power of what we call a ‘rapid learning healthcare system.

Bringing It All Together

By using big data to accelerate innovation and practice, we are positioning WUSM to continue to lead advances in personalized and precision medicine. In this context, informatics is both a driver of discovery and scientific productivity, as well as a provider of tools and technologies that can transform research, clinical care, and education.  It is an exceptionally exciting time for our field, and one that requires us to embrace and understand our central role in the paradigm shift that is occurring around personalized approaches to healthcare delivery at the individual patient and broader population levels.