The University of California-San Francisco School of Medicine, one of the country’s top medical schools, has set its sights on being a leader in digital health and clinical informatics in order to compete in the healthcare marketplace.

“No organization will be great if they have not figured out how to be great in technology,” says Robert Wachter, MD, chair of UCSF’s Department of Medicine. “We’re building a spectacular organization that helps us innovate and answer important questions as it relates to how do you use digital tools and data to make care better, safer, more accessible and less expensive.”

In recent years, UCSF has pursued technology efforts, including a big data and precision medicine initiative at its Institute for Computational Health Sciences and collaborative efforts with Silicon Valley giants such as Cisco, GE and Intel through its Center for Digital Health Innovation. However, Wachter acknowledges that until recently, other universities have dominated those areas.

Robert Wachter, MD
Robert Wachter, MD

“Clinical informatics, up until about a decade ago, was not a major strength of ours,” he says. “When I think about places that really focused on the fundamental building blocks of clinical informatics, Harvard, Vanderbilt, Columbia and Stanford come to mind. In the last 10 years, we’ve caught up.”

UCSF has recruited Julia Adler-Milstein from the University of Michigan, a leading researcher whose work has been at the intersection of health informatics, policy and system performance. Adler-Milstein, an expert on health IT management issues, arrives in July and will launch a new Center for Clinical Informatics and Improvement Research which will focus on the use of electronic health records and other digital tools to improve healthcare.

The new center “will in some ways be a traditional medical informatics research group in the sense that what we’re interested in is types of health IT that are used on the front lines of care,” says Adler-Milstein. “I do not imagine that we will do any study that does not have an outcome measure that is of broader interest to people who think about health system transformation—so quality, efficiency, cost.

“This is about taking health IT into its next phase of development,” she adds. “We’ve done the hard work to implement the systems. Now, we need to do the hard work to figure out how to actually use them effectively and unlock the potential to really improve healthcare.”

Wachter, who is the Holly Smith Distinguished Professor in Science and Medicine and holds the Lynne and Marc Benioff Endowed Chair in Hospital Medicine, is also the author of the 2015 book The Digital Doctor: Hope, Hype, and Harm at the Dawn of Medicine's Computer Age. “The field of digital medicine is moving so fast,” he says, noting, “It’s clear we’ve not gotten it right” with physician burnout rampant in healthcare.

“We’re entering this new phase where we’ve got to figure out how to take full advantage of digital health to deliver on all of its promises,” Wachter concludes.

Also See: UCSF, GE Healthcare join to create advanced algorithms

Udi Manber, a technologist, has also joined UCSF’s Department of Medicine as a professor and the inaugural director of digital transformation in the Institute for Computational Health Sciences. “His role is to promote digital innovation and transformation throughout the organization. He meets with people and groups to try and help them think about their work in new ways,” says Wachter. Having led the search groups at Amazon, Google and Yahoo, Manber is a leading expert in using data to gain insights, according to Wachter.

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