The United States spends $2 tril­lion in health care annu­ally. New tech­nolo­gies and approaches to health care have led to a growing field in health infor­matics, which has a focus on both the clin­ical and per­sonal aspects of the industry. We asked Tim­othy Bick­more, an asso­ciate pro­fessor in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, to dis­cuss the impact this field can have on the health care industry as a whole, as well as Northeastern’s new PhD pro­gram in health informatics.

As one of the first in the nation to have this pro­gram, what are some dif­ferent approaches we can expect from Northeastern’s new health infor­matics PhD pro­gram this fall?

The pro­gram was designed pri­marily by four fac­ulty mem­bers in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence and Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences — myself, Stephen Intille, Rupal Patel and Matthew Goodwin — all researchers doing inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research in “patient-facing” health informatics.

The focus on patient– and consumer-​​facing health infor­matics is unique. There are sev­eral grad­uate pro­grams in med­ical and health infor­matics in the United States, but they all focus on clin­ical infor­matics — that is, infor­ma­tion sys­tems used by doc­tors and nurses.

The key issues that our pro­gram will address are designing sys­tems that can be used by laypeople with varying degrees of com­puter and health lit­eracy, with var­ious edu­ca­tional and cul­tural back­grounds; and cre­ating sys­tems that are intended to change health behavior as much as to inform, and are designed to be inte­grated into peo­ples’ everyday lives over long periods of time.

What is the impact of health infor­matics on health care, and how will it shape people’s rela­tion­ship with health-care providers and the industry?

Poor health behavior — including every­thing from phys­ical inac­tivity and poor diet, smoking, not get­ting rec­om­mended vac­ci­na­tions and screening tests — is a direct cause of a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the $2 tril­lion the United States spends on health care annually.

One focus of per­sonal health infor­matics is designing new tech­nolo­gies that can have a sig­nif­i­cant pos­i­tive impact on these behav­iors; another is designing assis­tive tech­nolo­gies to increase the quality of life for indi­vid­uals with a variety of dis­abil­i­ties. Some of the sig­nif­i­cant design chal­lenges we face are cre­ating sys­tems that can facil­i­tate provider-​​patient com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and designing sys­tems to com­mu­ni­cate health data that is mea­sured and reported out­side of the clin­ical envi­ron­ment in a way that providers trust and will use.

What are some instances of health infor­matics adop­tion by health-care pro­fes­sionals that people can already interact with and uti­lize as the field con­tinues to grow?

There is an exploding market for con­sumer-health tech­nolo­gies, ranging from pedome­ters to dig­ital bath­room scales to sleep mon­i­tors. These tech­nolo­gies are becoming increas­ingly intel­li­gent and net­worked to reporting and feed­back func­tions aimed at improving health behavior.

There is also a growing market in telemed­i­cine devices that mon­itor and com­mu­ni­cate with patients at home, then report status and alerts to health-care providers. The health infor­matics pro­gram is designed not only to teach stu­dents how to design these devices, but how to use them in theory-​​driven inter­ven­tions and eval­uate them in rig­or­ously con­trolled clin­ical trials, which are required to gain cred­i­bility with health care providers.