Thursday, December 29, 2011

Annual Reflections at Year's End: Reveling in the Successes of 2011 and Looking Ahead

It has become a tradition for me in this blog to post an end-of-year message reflecting on the accomplishments (and, in recent times, thrills) of the past 12 months. This posting follows those from the end of 2009 and 2010.

It has indeed been another incredible year for informatics. Unlike past years, however, we have real accomplishments upon which to report, and not just future dreams. Most of my activity this past year has revolved around projects that are part of the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act that aims to achieve "meaningful use" of electronic health records. This has not, of course, been the main focus of everyone in informatics, as explained further below.

The main activity for me this past year has been carrying the projects that were dreamt about in 2009 and funded in 2010. Many of us still remember spending the winter holiday season of 2009 into 2010 writing proposals for the "Office of No Christmas," aka the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC). I also remember the thrill a few months later  upon learning that the two proposals I submitted had been funded, one for curriculum development and the other for training students in our graduate educational program.

There is a joke in academia that the downside of getting grants funded is that you actually have to do the work. However, the work of the ONC projects has truly been a labor of love for me. We have pretty much accomplished everything we said we would, and the results are having a mark on the field. The only sad aspect of these projects is that next year at this time, they will be winding down. We are looking at ways to achieve longer-term sustainability of both.

As noted above, however, not all that is informatics is connected to the HITECH Program. Another major source of activity is in the twin realms of clinical research informatics and translational bioinformatics. Much of this work has been enabled by the Clinical & Translational Science Award (CTSA) Program of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Informatics has been a prominent feature in the CTSA program, leading to the development of tools and techniques that aid in the use of the data to improve the conduct of biomedical research and ultimately human health. The informatics community has also been well-organized within the CTSA framework. Although my own effort in CTSA has diminished somewhat due to the HITECH work, I am still involved in a number of roles, including working on ways to connect informatics to comparative effectiveness research (CER).

Another important area that is likely to emerge in 2012 and beyond is the informatics of personal health. We can only do so much to improve health care delivery and treatment of disease. Our field needs to pay more attention to maintaining health and preventing disease. To this end, I am pleased to see an exciting new funding opportunity from the US National Science Foundation (NSF) on Smart Health and Well-Being. We still have a lot to learn about health promotion and disease prevention. Those of us who do proactively act on maintaining our health are less prevalent than those who react to disease once it occurs. And of course, some disease just cannot be prevented no matter how healthfully we live.

I am also pleased at year's end that I have been able to sustain this blog. I have preferred to maintain this blog less like many excellent blogs that consist of the blogger's (often well-articulated) stream of consciousness. Instead, I prefer fewer but more focused and developed posts about specific topics, more like a newspaper or magazine column. I plan to continue that approach, and already have many planned postings for the weeks and months ahead. I have been so busy this fall that I have not had time to develop them.

I do wish everyone a healthy and prosperous 2012!

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