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Graduate Program in Biomedical Informatics

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Brochure (pdf file)     Executive Summary (pdf file)

Trends in Biomedical Informatics Research and Education

A Classification of Biomedical Informatics Education

The following figure depicts a classification of biomedical informatics training according to graduate/undergraduate nature, granting of formal graduate degrees (M.S./PhD or equivalent), training program academic independence, length of studies and required coursework.

Figure 2. Classification of Biomedical Informatics Education

Analysis of Graduate Training in Biomedical Informatics

Using Figure 2, we discuss briefly the international experience in biomedical informatics training. We note that undergraduate training (an important subject in itself), is included in the figure only for completeness and is not classified or discussed further. In addition, it is important to note that the categories in the classification hierarchy of Figure 2 are not mutually exclusive, in that most centers offer more than one educational option to interested trainees. For example at Pittsburgh, trainees can receive short courses, non-degree fellowships, formal medical informatics degree training, as well as formal degree training in a related discipline.

Training programs that include non-Degree-granting components (#3 to 5)

This category includes:

(a) Training programs so early in their development that they cannot offer formal degrees (e.g., the Aalborg program).

(b) Short courses for professionals or academics in other informatics-related disciplines (e.g., the National Library of Medicine's Woods Hole Short Course; Stanford's Short Course in Medical Informatics, Pittsburgh's Short Course, Oregon Health Sciences University's short course via the web.

(c) NLM-sponsored Research Fellowships at specified NLM-sponsored academic training sites. These are offered as a sequel to clinical specialty training for physicians (as degree or non-degree programs), or as stand-alone post-graduate training programs for individuals with professional degrees (e.g., R.N., M.L.S., M.D, D.D.S., M.P.H., or Ph.D.) in either in one of the Health Sciences or the natural or Engineering Sciences (again, as either degree or non-degree programs). NLM also supports combined M.D./PhD candidates as "degree candidates".

(d) NLM-sponsored Individual Fellowships in Applied Informatics. These individualized, NLM-funded courses of study can occur at any approved applicant institution (not just NLM-funded training program sites) and may involve degree programs or not, and either pre-doctoral or post-doctoral trainees. They are intended to prepare more senior health care administrators and clinicians to use informatics, either in continuing their previous administrative or clinical work, or as a mechanism of starting a new career as full-time informatics researchers.

Non degree-granting programs typically last from 1 to 4 years. In some programs (e.g., at the Regenstrief Institute in Indianapolis, IN) trainees are required to take courses and participate normally in assignments, projects, and evaluation procedures.

Degree-granting training programs "within another program" (#1):

This category includes degree-granting programs where there is no autonomous Biomedical Informatics degree program, per se, so that graduate degrees are awarded through specialized tracks within collaborating, informatics-related degree programs on campus (such as computer science or biomedical engineering). An example would be the University of Pittsburgh's Biomedical Informatics training program, which in addition to a non-degree track, has allowed trainees to obtain degrees through the University's Intelligent Systems Studies Program, and through its Library and Information Science degree program. We do not include in this category the degree programs where Biomedical Informatics trainees pursue "pure" or "traditional" formal degrees in related disciplines, without specialized biomedical informatics courses or tracks.

Degree-granting training programs in Medical Informatics (#2):

These represent Biomedical Informatics units that directly grant degrees in the field. Below we provide a summary of all NIH/National Library of Medicine-funded U.S. Biomedical Informatics training programs, as well as some of the most important international training programs. Examples (in no particular order) are the programs at Stanford University, the University of Utah, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Minnesota, The Joint Harvard/MIT/Tufts Program, and the program at Columbia University. A comparison of various degree-granting programs reveals considerable variance in the breadth of materials taught. Programs exhibiting greater breadth offer training in two stages. The first stage involves formal coursework and teaching regarding all major sub-fields of biomedical informatics. The second stage is devoted to research, leading to in depth knowledge through discovery, electives, guided readings, special examinations, etc.. Examples of this model are the Stanford and Pittsburgh programs. Other programs emphasize focused training over greater breadth. Such programs typically offer degree training in three stages: first, theory courses covering a limited set of topics (e.g., clinical informatics, but not bioinformatics); second, specialized theoretical training in 3 to 6 sub-fields; and finally, stage three is research in one of the stage two sub-fields. Examples of such degree programs are the Utah, Heidelberg, and Paris programs. We also note that in Europe, Biomedical Informatics overlaps significantly with Biomedical Engineering, whereas in the U.S. these fields are considered separate (the former tending to concentrate on biomedical devices and device-related software, and the latter on the general structure and utilization of biomedical information).

Because Biomedical Informatics emerged as a discipline only during the latter half of the twentieth century, many current leaders in biomedical informatics did not receive formal degree training in biomedical informatics per se. However, we believe that trainees of today are, in general, better served by programs that give them (a) systematic training in methodological, technical, and organizational issues related to this field, (b) exposure to high-quality research, (c) self-learning skills, and (d) the "brand name" recognition that accompanies significant research being accomplished at a well-respected program. We further believe that training must be tailored to the individual trainee's background and goals. That is why we believe that certain highly-qualified individuals with strong technical backgrounds (e.g., an M.D. with a Masters' Degree in Computer Science, or an RN with a PhD in Biomedical Engineering) may benefit from a "post-doctoral", non-degree, research training experience. However, a significant number (possibly even the majority) of applicants for training in Biomedical Informatics at Vanderbilt will best be served by the proposed rigorous degree program, since those applicants will not otherwise obtain a high proportion of the requisite skills to succeed in the field.


  • NLM = National Library of Medicine
  • HIS = Hospital Information System
  • IAIMS = Integrated Academic Information Management System
  • UMLS = Unified Medical Language System
  • EMR = Electronic Medical Record
  • CI = Clinical Informatics

History of Biomedical Informatics-related Degree Offerings at Vanderbilt

There is a long history of collaboration among professionals in Biomedical Engineering, Computer Science, and the fledgling field of Biomedical Informatics. Some of the earliest pioneering work in biomedical informatics, was the product of collaborations that began in the 1960s between computer scientists at MIT (Anthony Gorry, Peter Szolovits) and faculty at Harvard Medical School (G. Octo Barnett) and Tufts-New England Medical Center (William Schwartz and Stephen Pauker). This pattern has held for many current Vanderbilt Biomedical Informatics faculty. Dr. William W. Stead, Director of the Informatics Center at VUMC, and Associate Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs at VUMC, did his early informatics training at Duke University under the tutelage of, and later through collaboration with, W. Edward Hammond, PhD (a Biomedical Engineer and founding Board Member of the American Medical Informatics Association). Dario Giuse, DrIng, Associate Professor of Biomedical Informatics, came to Vanderbilt from a faculty position in the Robotics Institute in the School of Computer Science at Carnegie-Mellon University. Edward S. Shultz, MD, MS combined his training in Pathology with a Masters degree in Biophysics at the University of Minnesota.

At Vanderbilt, for at least two decades, the School of Engineering, primarily through the Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME), and the Department of Computer Science (now Electrical Engineering and Computer Science), have offered 'tracks' in medical informatics to students in their Masters and PhD degree programs. A number of students have taken advantage of such opportunities over the years. In addition, there is a long history of collaborative research between faculty in BME and faculty in the School of Medicine and School of Nursing. As a DBMI Fellow, Steven H. Brown, M.D., M.S., completed his Masters Degree in Biomedical Engineering (Informatics track) in the mid-1990s, before joining the faculty of DBMI.

When the current Department of Biomedical Informatics (DBMI) core faculty arrived at Vanderbilt in 1994, the first courses they taught in Biomedical Informatics were offered as "Special Topics" courses in the graduate school through Biomedical Engineering, an arrangement facilitated by Thomas Harris, Chairman of BME. Collaboration between BME and the DBMI has continued since that time. A number of the BME graduate students who took the early DBMI informatics courses have pursued PhD thesis work in the area - including Edward E. Westberg, Russ Waitman, and Patrick Norris. A similar track record of student involvement in Biomedical Informatics-related thesis work has occurred in Computer Science. Dr. Dario Giuse has served on the dissertation committees of a number of Vanderbilt Computer Science graduate students.It is anticipated that the proposed degree program will leverage the strengths of BME, EECS, and DBMI (as well as other "basic science" and clinical departments at Vanderbilt) to benefit students in all areas. Several of the graduate courses offered by BME are relevant to graduate students enrolled in the Masters or PhD Biomedical Informatics programs. A number of the courses offered by EECS are also relevant (details of specific courses are provided later in this proposal). Core and elective courses offered by DBMI faculty for the proposed new degree program will also be of potential value to BME and EECS graduate students according to discussions with BME and EECS representatives.

To place the present program in the above context, we now offer an autonomous, specialized, M.S. and Ph.D. - granting program in Biomedical Informatics that emphasizes strong theory, advanced research, strong clinical and/or bioinformatics integration, flexibility, and academic rigor. Vanderbilt, through the Department of Biomedical Informatics, will also continue to offer postdoctoral research traineeships to appropriately qualified individuals, who will not be required to complete additional formal degree programs (although they may take a number of courses).

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