Thursday, October 22, 2009

Medical Informatics, Pharma, Health IT, and Golden Advice That Sits Sadly Unused

In recent correspondences with colleagues I was reminded of a letter I wrote seven years ago that was published in Bio-IT World, a journal about biomedicine focusing mainly on pharma, bioinformatics and related fields.

As the sole formally-trained Medical Informatics specialist at Merck, I wrote:

Medical Informatics MIA [Missing in Action - ed.]
Bio-IT World
August 13, 2002

Dear Bio-IT World:

I enjoyed reading the article "Informatics Moves to the Head of the Class" (June Bio·IT World). Thank you for spotlighting the National Library of Medicine (NLM) training programs in medical informatics and bioinformatics, of which I am a graduate (Yale, 1994).

Bioinformatics appears to receive more media attention and offer more status, career opportunities, and compensation than the less-prestigious medical informatics.

This disparity, however, may impede the development of next-generation medicines. Bioinformatics discoveries may be more likely to result in new medicines, for example via pharmacogenomics, when they are coupled with large-scale, concurrent, ongoing clinical data collection. At the same time, applied medical informatics, as a distinct specialty, is essential to the success of extensive clinical data collection efforts, especially at the point of care.

Hospital and provider MIS personnel are best equipped for implementing business-oriented IT, not clinical IT. Implementing clinical IT in patient-care settings constitutes one of the core competencies of applied medical informaticists.

Informatics specialists with a bioinformatics focus — even those coming from the new joint programs — usually are not proficient in hospital business and management issues that impede adoption of clinical IT in patient care settings. Such organizational and territorial issues are in no small way responsible for the low utilization of clinical IT in patient care settings.

It will be important for medical informaticists focused in the clinical domain and bioinformaticists specializing in the molecular domain to collaborate with other specialists in order to best integrate clinical and genomic data.

Further information on these issues can be found in the book Organizational Aspects of Health Informatics: Managing Technological Change, by Nancy M. Lorenzi and Robert T. Riley (Springer-Verlag, 1995). Various publications from the medical informatics community, such as the American Medical Informatics Association ( and the International Medical Informatics Association (, are also useful.

Scot Silverstein, MD
Director, Published Information Resources & The Merck Index
Merck Research Laboratories

I was also responsible for the entry of the term "Medical Informatics" into the controlled vocabulary pool used for various purposes at Merck.

As far as I can tell, the Medical Informatics talent gap still exists in all major pharmas despite writings on the topic from colleagues as well as myself. With the present turmoil including declining pipelines, mergers and mass layoffs pending in many large pharmas, and even despite Medical Informatics on a fast path to being declared a full medical subspecialty, it is likely this gap will persist for years longer. This is a shame. The field offers insights that can help R&D substantially, and I speak from direct experience from my time in that domain.

I am reminded via all this of another industry that seems to hurt itself via ignoring the advice of Medical Informatics professionals, the health IT industry. Healthcare IT is actually the core competence of Medical Informatics professionals, but those people are under-represented in the higher ranks of the health IT industry as well. Many job postings seek such people, but for lower level roles (as I've posted here in the past), and/or conflate formal training with informal experience and with those who qualify for the title of Medical Informaticist like I qualify (being an amateur radio licensee, extra class) as a professional RF engineer.

The irony is this: the wisdom of the Medical Informatics field on health IT goes back not years, but decades. It is advice that could have made the vendors much higher margins, allowed them to produce better products, avoid the government regulation that is now nearly inevitable (in some EU countries, clinical IT has already been determined to be a medical device requiring regulation), and in many cases, enabled corporate longevity.

Yet the teachings and accumulated wisdom of the field were, and largely still are, ignored, making books such as the new "H.I.T. or Miss: Lessons Learned from Health Information Technology Implementations" necessary even in 2009.

Here is just a small sampling of that wisdom:

Dr. Donald A. B. Lindberg (now Director of the U.S. National Library of Medicine at NIH), 1969:
"Computer engineering experts per se have virtually no idea of the real problems of medical or even hospital practice, and furthermore have consistently underestimated the complexity of the problems…in no cases can [building appropriate clinical information systems] be done, simply because they have not been defined with the physician as the continuing major contributor and user of the information."

Dr. Octo Barnett's [Harvard] health IT Ten Commandments, 1970:
1. Thou shall know what you want to do
2. Thou shall construct modular systems - given chaotic nature of hospitals
3. Thou shall build a computer system that can evolve in a graceful fashion
4. Thou shall build a system that allows easy and rapid programming development and modification
5. Thou shall build a system that has consistently rapid response time and is easy for the non-computernik to use
6. Thou shall have duplicate hardware systems
7. Thou shall build and implement your system in a joint effort with real users in a real situation with real problems
8. Thou shall be concerned with realities of the cost and projected benefit of the computer system
9. Innovation in computer technology is not enough; there must be a commitment to the potentials of radical change in other aspects of healthcare delivery, particularly those having to do with organization and manpower utilization
10. Be optimistic about the future, supportive of good work that is being done, passionate in your commitment, but always guided by a fundamental skepticism.

[Dr. Barnett played a key role in the 2009 National Research Council report about current approaches to health IT being inadequate, Press Release at, and full report "

Dr. Morris Collen's Five Rules, 1972
Most common causes of health IT failure:
  • Suboptimal mix of medical and computer specialists … resulting in communications difficulties and in the computer staff underestimating the vast medical needs
  • Gross underestimation of the large amounts of money needed
  • Suboptimal systems approach with serious incompatibilities between modules
  • Unacceptable terminals
  • Inadequate management organization and poor judgment

Dr. R. Friedman, Reasons for slow spread of EMR, 1977:
  • Poor engineering and unreliability
  • Physicians not provided with computer-based applications that exceeded their own capability!
  • Inability to prove a positive effect on patient care
  • Difficulty transferring one application from one institution to another

(All taken from Collen's "A history of Medical Informatics in the United States, 1950-1990".

I might add that the PC did not even exist in 1977, unless you consider the Altair and Heathkit H8 "personal computers."

Four-decades-old wisdom like this, and much more, sits out there in the ether and in the Medical Informatics field's professionals like a pot of gold, but is apparently considered as valuable as lead by the HIT - and pharma - industries. I find this amazing - and a pity.

-- SS

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dr. Octo Barnett's [Harvard] health IT Ten Commandments, 1970:

1. Thou shall know what you want to do


Steve Lucas