GVSU Launches Bioinformatics Program

October 3, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — In an effort to establish a degree for science similar in stature to the MBA, Grand Valley State University has debuted a life sciences-oriented degree, the Master's in Medical and Bioinformatics.

A marriage of information technology and health care, the program is in the School of Computing and Information Services. Paul Leiding, director of the school and the new program, expects that the new degree is the first of many examples of emerging fields created through a need for overlapping specialty skill sets.

"There is a realization that (students) need to prepare to go out and be adaptive, to come up with new technology and new solutions," he said.

Informatics is the use of computer systems to study information, with applications to any number of industries. In the biomedical field it has become particularly important as health-care providers and research institutions seek new efficiencies and innovations in a high-stakes game to create products, cut costs and save lives.

Medical informatics examines clinical and medical care data from hospitals and other health-care providers, including insurance companies, to discover ways to improve care, procedures, etc.

Bioinformatics is less defined, covering a spectrum from DNA to plants, and the myriad of interactions that drive pharmaceutical and health research.

The GVSU program is the result of efforts between the school, Spectrum Health, Saint Mary's Health Care, Van Andel Research Institute, Priority Health, Kent County Health Department, Grand Rapids Medical Education and Research Center (MERC) and other life science stakeholders in the area.

The best local example for the program's need could be Spectrum Health. It is in the midst of an $80 million computer overhaul aimed at reshaping practices and eliminating the type of medical errors that kill 100,000 people nationally each year.

"There is a national push in health-care technology," said Spectrum Health CIO Patrick O'Hare. "The number of professionals in the field focused on use of information technology is continuing to grow."

Spectrum Health just hired a second physician for its IT department. The first, Angela Tiberio, director of medical informatics, used to make rounds in the hospital's intensive care unit. Nurses, pharmacists and technicians have also answered the call to duty in Spectrum's IT department. As the field moves forward with electronic recordkeeping and computerized provider order entry (CPOE), IT will become the "core lifeline" of health-care providers, O'Hare said.

From a strictly paper record system a decade ago, Spectrum Health now generates mountains of electronic data. Nurses enter documentation into a computer at a patient's bedside. An electrocardiogram constantly feeds vital signs into the system. Then there is the CPOE.

"The skill set to deal with records in the electronic environment is much greater than the paper environment," O'Hare said. "How do use that data? How do you organize it and make it accessible? How do you present it? What is the patient flow through the organization?

"How do you adapt the technology for increased patient safety, physician quality and so forth?" he asked.

Answering all these questions requires a level of skill that neither the common IT nor health-care professional possesses, O'Hare said, a need GVSU has addressed through the informatics program.

"Now the region will have talent groomed in data extraction and analytics," said Jim Slubowski, Priority Health CIO. "More and more, health care needs to be measured for outcomes."

The informatics program is the result of a grant from the New York-based Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to establish Professional Science Master's programs (PSM). The Sloan Foundation has helped 45 institutions nationwide (four in Michigan) launch PSMs, to prepare students for consulting, banking, insurance, research management and technology transfer.

GVSU has received funding for three PSMs. The other programs, which will phase in over the next two years, are the Master's in Biotechnology from the School of Cell and Molecular Biology, and the Master's in Biostatistics from the statistics department in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

"Someone with an MBA, that's considered enough education for everything they would want to do," said David Elrod, the Pfizer alum tapped as GVSU PSM coordinator. "This is an attempt to give a higher status to the Master's degree, not just as a stepping stone to a Ph.D."

Traditionally, advanced degree science programs have been focused on academics and research, not developing career-oriented skills. The PSM does just the opposite, focusing on interaction with other disciplines and workplace needs. It also replaces the capstone research project with an internship.    

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