This month we are so pleased to welcome and profile Associate Professor Adam Dunn. Adam is the inaugural head of the new Discipline of Biomedical Informatics and Digital Health. We asked Adam about himself and his vision for the new Discipline.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself
I have been a full-time research academic for more than thirteen years but like most people in this unusual field, I took a very circuitous route. Before I started looking at problems in healthcare, I was originally a computer scientist but studied cryptographic algorithms, and modelled bushfires and spatial phenomena related to invasive plants and animals. Since then I have spent time in research across nearly the full spectrum of health informatics topics.
What I am known for internationally is research in clinical research informatics – making sure data from clinical research is available, accessible, and synthesised without bias; and public health informatics – leveraging data from social media to monitor and create change in health behaviours in the community. But what I tend to spend most of my time doing is supporting EMCR academics to help them navigate academia and be successful. I recognise that the academic world is very different from what it used to be, but my experience has always been that collaboration and kindness have a multiplicative effect on what we can achieve.
How do you define digital health?
Defining digital health seems like an impossible task because its meaning is constantly shifting. Twenty years ago, digital health would have been dreams of how the internet would be used to democratise and share high quality and credible health information with every person on the planet, and protocols for sending private patient information via facsimile machine. In twenty years, we may have personal intelligent agents accessing the best current evidence and performing real-time analysis of the medical records of people most like us to persuade us to modify our behaviour, or to help us work with our healthcare providers to make the right diagnostic and treatment decisions at the right time.
What I think is the constant in digital health is using data and technology to support clinicians, empower people, develop new treatments, and make sense of vast troves of health information. But at its core, it should always be focused on the goal of improving health outcomes. If that is what you spend most of your time on in research, teaching, or practice, then you are probably in digital health.
What do you think the new Discipline of Biomedical Informatics and Digital Health will mean for the University of Sydney?
The Discipline is all about building a community to connect the excellent work in education and research that is already being done in the university and create strong connections into the Australian health system. It was designed to be especially porous, across the university but also across the academic and health sector in general. BIDH will be the catalyst to help the Faculty and the University achieve more than the sum of its parts.
One of our primary goals will be to ensure that we teach digital health on par with other faculty-wide disciplines like physiology and anatomy. Every student moving into a health profession after graduation should have a full range of capabilities in digital health. Though I took a circuitous route to end up here, I also hope the Discipline will create a much more direct pathway to specialisation in biomedical informatics and digital health for undergraduates and postgraduates in the University.
I also expect the Discipline will be available to help researchers from across the Faculty, University, and LHDs to fill in some of the gaps they might have in their research programs and translation. That might mean improving the diversity of where research funding comes from, finding partners on the other side of the fence to take up the newest language representations in clinical text applications or to trial whether a new deep learning method can really support clinical decision making when plonked into the hospital system.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing digital health at the moment?
I think digital health is experiencing a kind of renaissance in practice right now, with many players including hospitals, health systems, and large companies introducing new technologies into the sector, largely unchecked and under-evaluated. But research academics, especially in data-driven sciences, seem to mostly exist in a completely different space. We tend to fall into the trap of working in silos, because working collaboratively with other disciplines and clinicians is time-consuming and most funding agencies favour incremental research programs that fit neatly and entirely within traditional fields of research. But I also think that research conducted on campus is special and should play an important role in driving innovation in practice while ensuring rigour and safety, in ways that other stakeholders mostly cannot.
Because of this, I think the biggest challenge right now comes from the lack of integration between the triangle of recent advances in information sciences, applied health and medical research, and the deployment and evaluation of technology in hospitals, clinics, and communities. But this challenge is also exactly what the Discipline was set up to do, and it is also one of the things I must do while developing BIDH in the next 5 years if I want to keep my job!
Do you have any interesting resources or helpful networks people should know about?
I hope everyone who sees this is already part of the Digital Health Informatics Network (DHIN). The DHIN already includes more than 700 people and BIDH will certainly do its part to facilitate more connections and activities within the network.
But further afield, the most useful network I am part of is the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA). Not just people from the United States, this association has a broad range of specialised working groups routinely discussing the state-of-the-art in biomedical informatics and digital health. Being involved with AMIA is a shortcut to publishing in the leading journals in the field, the daily emails are always packed with interesting stories about recent news across digital health and biomedical informatics, and the best and the brightest from around the world are at the conferences ready to welcome people from Australia into the community. For those who can, I recommend joining up to AMIA and attending the AMIA Symposiums.
Connect with Adam:
Welcome and a very big thank you to Adam for being our March profile.