Leveraging the Value of Biomedical Informatics Across NIH

The American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA) 2021 Annual Symposium is coming to a close today, and I was honored to moderate NLM’s Annual Update Panel. This was an opportunity to talk about NLM’s contributions to NIH data science and tools, common data elements and clinical informatics. Over the last 40 years I’ve proudly served in many roles in AMIA and its predecessor organizations, including president, member of the Board of Directors, associate editor of the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association, and numerous committee assignments; all of which fostered the advancement of health at the intersection of informatics, clinical, and biomedical knowledge. I’ve made many friends, been mentored by some of the greatest minds in the field, mentored others, and am grateful for the intellectual leadership and personal support provided by attendees at this meeting.

This year I am leading a completely new effort; for the first time in its 134-year history, NIH has multiple leaders across its Institutes and Centers who also are leaders in biomedical informatics. Together, with Michael F. Chiang, MD, Director of the National Eye Institute; Joshua Denny, MD, MS, CEO of NIH’s All of Us Program; Zhiyong Lu, PhD, FACMI, Senior Investigator in NLM’s National Center for Biotechnology Information; and Clement McDonald, MD, Chief, Health Data Standards Officer at NLM, I had the pleasure of leading a panel discussion about how informatics is accelerating efforts at NIH in support of biomedical discovery and the public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

NIH recognizes that the future of biomedical discovery rests, in part, on being able to leverage the knowledge embodied in clinical health records. For example:

  • As we learned throughout the pandemic, the insights we glean from clinical health records and from understanding the natural history of COVID-19 inform best practices for addressing its spread. More importantly, the ability to quickly and efficiently access clinical information provides an opportunity to titrate clinical trials in response to the ‘in-the-moment’ understanding of the course of an illness and clinical care for patients.
  • An improved understanding of the long-term course of COVID-19 and its clinical sequalae rests on being able to follow patients across time. Clarifying the impact of novel vaccines or clinical therapeutics would be enhanced by the ability to integrate participant information across any and every study in which the participant is represented.
  • NIH is engaged in exploring the value of contemporary and emerging informatics innovations, such as cloud-based reusable platforms and datasets, common data models, and the effective development and use of artificial intelligence and machine learning approaches to biomedical research and clinical practice.

Each of these requires effective deployment of informatics innovations into the research process.

AMIA’s Clinical Research Informatics community was foundational to the enhancement of the integration of biomedical informatics concepts into the research process. Much progress has been made to structure information for clinical and translational research and common data elements. Incremental progress must be praised, but to engage the operations of the world’s largest biomedical enterprise requires multiple touch points. Specifically, expanding the critical mass of leadership with expertise in biomedical informatics is essential for instituting enterprise-wide change.

Perhaps, as evidence of the importance of biomedical informatics in the research enterprise, NIH now has directors of three institutes and/or major operations who stand as leaders in the biomedical informatics community. The number of American College of Medical Informatics fellows among the NIH staff is expanding. Not only does this allow a ‘community of conversation,’ but embedding informatics expertise across NIH has accelerated the acceptance of, and the valuing of, biomedical informatics in the biomedical research enterprise. Together we are stimulating new biomedical informatics methods, processes, and the application of biomedical informatics innovation to science and health. I invite you to come join us!

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