Monday, June 6, 2011

Commencement Address Representing OHSU School of Medicine Graduate Studies Program

The Commencement & Hooding Ceremony of the OHSU School of Medicine, also known as Graduation, is always an enjoyable time for me. It is gratifying to see another year's class of graduates from our Biomedical Informatics Graduate Program receive their hoods and diplomas. This year we had largest graduating class ever, with six PhDs, 12 students in our two master's programs, and 20 Graduate Certificates. This brings our total number of degrees and certificates awarded up to 336 since the inception of the program in 1996. This commencement we more than doubled our number of PhD graduates (from five to 11), and also saw the first group of graduates from our ONC University-Based Training (UBT) Program.

This year I also was invited to give the Graduate Studies Program faculty address. I was honored to represent the faculty of all of the OHSU School of Medicine graduate programs and share my informatics-tinged wisdom and vision with the larger School of Medicine audience.

Below is the text of my remarks delivered on Monday, June 6, 2011:

After all these years of sitting down in the faculty section of this ceremony, I am honored to be asked to give this address representing the faculty in the graduate programs of the School of Medicine. As some of you know, I direct the graduate program in biomedical informatics, which is the field devoted to the use of data and information, usually but not always aided by computers, to improve personal health, clinical practice, biomedical research, and public health. Like all disciplines, biomedical informatics has a science and methodology that is carried out by its researchers and practitioners, and a new group of graduates are entering the field by completing their studies today.

As the faculty in my program know, Commencement is a very important event for me. With the exception of last year due to an unavoidable conflict, I have attended every Commencement since our biomedical informatics graduate program had its first graduates in 1998. We began with a handful of Master's degrees, but now as of this graduation have over 300 alumni who have attained not only Master's degrees, but also PhDs and Graduate Certificates. Despite 13 years of graduating students, my thrill of seeing graduates of our program has not worn off. I am sure that my fellow graduate program directors feel the same way.

So what advice can I give to those who are graduating with PhDs, Master's degrees, and Certificates in the School of Medicine? I will skip the usual advice, important as it is, to devote your life's work to your profession, to keep a healthy balance of activities outside of work with family and friends, and to act professionally in a world of instant gratification and 24/7 information flow. Instead, I will try to provide some perspective and wisdom from my discipline of biomedical informatics.

I probably do not need to tell graduates, faculty, or even members of the audience that the 21st century is a golden era at the intersection of health sciences with information and computer sciences. It is truly changing what we do as clinicians, researchers, and other professionals who deal with health.

One of the best statements of this vision comes the Institute of Medicine and is the notion of the learning health system. We now truly have the ability to track and measure what we do in health care practice and public health, and drive research questions and answers from it. Our substantial federal investment in electronic health records, along with the growing ability to sequence genes, measure their expression, and analyze the products they produce, is ushering in an unprecedented era to compare and then learn the best approaches not only to treating disease but also keeping us healthy.

It is also critical to remember that no matter from what discipline you are graduating, success in this new era will require skills to use and manage information in ways that did not exist even a decade ago. You must understand the meaning and the limitations that exist with the increasing types and volume of data you collect. You must adhere to data standards so others can build on your work. Those of you working with human data also cannot forget the importance of protecting the privacy of individuals who have graciously permitted you to borrow their data for your work. In addition to skills in managing data, you must also be an expert in searching and accessing the literature and other scientific resources of your field. As if that is not enough, critical thinking and analysis are essential to all of this voluminous amount of data and information.

Another critical challenge to emerge in the 21st century is the need to collaborate across disciplines. The truly vexing problems of health care and public health require an interdisciplinary approach. Basic scientists, clinicians, informaticians, and others must come together to translate basic science into clinical care, to bring the best clinical care to the entire population, and insure that care is delivered with the highest quality and safety. We also need to reform our health care system to provide incentive for coordination and efficiency, not only because it will cost less but also because it will result in better patient outcomes. This will in turn require critical investments in information systems to bring the right information to the right people at the right time.

In closing, no matter what graduate degree or certificate you are receiving today, there are unprecedented opportunities. There may be uncertainties about health care reform, federal research funding, and the economy in general. But there is now unprecedented opportunity to impact health. I wish all graduates here today the best as they embark on their new careers.

(Postscript: The text of this talk also appears on the OHSU School of Medicine Commencement 2011 site.)

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