Office of
Research Services

Connecting the Dots

A former Cerner executive works with researchers and clinicians to harness the power of “big data.”
relationship graphic

Physicians spend a significant portion of their day entering notes about their patients into computers, and the demands of digital recordkeeping can become a burden. But in addition to providing instant access to a patient’s complete medical history, electronic health records create a wealth of information for researchers.

Mark Hoffman and his team work to pull new discoveries from the data entered by doctors and allied health professionals. As director of the Center for Health Insights, he stands at the intersection of technology, research and health care. The School of Medicine created the center in 2013 to lead the effort to provide research informatics capabilities to UMKC researchers and other stakeholders. Hoffman and his team have already worked with clinicians and researchers in the schools of Medicine, Dentistry, Nursing and Heath Studies and in the Department of Psychology to apply the power of computer science to the troves of information collected in hospitals, clinics and laboratories.

Biomedical informatics is the process of connecting the dots of medicine and data. “Big data” can take many shapes, from genetic sequencing of the Ebola virus to contextualizing a patient’s chart with census tract information.

Hoffman hopes that as informatics provides new insights, the value of collecting electronic health records, or EHRs, and other data collection efforts will become more obvious.

“For many physicians, the EHR is just seen as an impediment — it slows them down. Or that’s the perception,” he says. “But when you can start to show them, ‘Here is the reason why this is valuable,’ then you can see the light bulb go on. Then they start to see, this actually is worth some time.”

Hoffman keeps a poster-sized rendering of the first map of the human genome on the wall of his office in the School of Medicine. Trained as a microbiologist, he was a vice president at Cerner Corp. before arriving at UMKC in 2013. At Cerner, he led efforts in genomics, research and public health.

For Hoffman, the transition from the corporate world to an academic institution was a smooth one. In addition to maintaining a publication record while at Cerner, he worked with a number of the company’s academic clients.

“That gave me a really good frame of reference to understand what really makes a difference in terms of accelerating a research agenda,” he says. “So when I came here, I was able to draw on that and develop an immediate strategy of things that I thought we could start with.”

One of the first projects Hoffman and his team tackled was to make available REDCap, a web-based platform for faculty, students and staff to capture data in a secure environment that complies with privacy regulations protecting patient information. The Center for Health Insights has also been involved in an effort to install a framework of tools that provides a view of clinical data collected at Children’s Mercy Hospitals and Clinics. The information is “de-identified” to protect patients’ privacy.

With his roots in microbiology, Hoffman was particularly excited by a project to analyze and disseminate information on antibiotic resistance at Children’s Mercy.

“When we share what we’ve built with the infectious disease physicians and see their eyes just go, ‘Wow, we can finally do this,’” Hoffman says. “To see the transformation they can provide is very satisfying and to know that work might impact how they treat kids and manage their antibiotic utilization.”

School of Medicine Dean Steven L. Kanter, who completed a fellowship in biomedical informatics, says UMKC is well positioned for the future of big data.

“Mark Hoffman recruited a strong team and quickly began to build capabilities that will make a real difference,” he says. “In a very short time, the Center for Health Insights has made a valuable contribution to our efforts to understand and improve health.”

Hoffman is putting his data science skills to wide use. He has worked with Katherine Bloemker, an associate professor in the School of Computing and Engineering, to produce 3D-printed models of a vertebra and the dengue virus. “Part of informatics is data visualization,” he says, holding the baseball-sized model of the virus in the palm of his hand. “This is the most tangible visualization you
can come across.”

Hoffman is also collaborating with researchers in the School of Computing and Engineering and Department of Architecture, Urban Planning and Design at the University of Missouri-Columbia on a project that involves the same technology featured in “The Hobbit” series and other Hollywood films. The team is using motion capture technology to measure performance in the School of Medicine’s clinical skills training facility. Cameras will record early learners as they install central lines on mannequins and perform other simulations in an effort to see how their movements differ from those of experienced physicians.

Working with engineers and architects allows Hoffman to see different ways technology is being used to address challenging questions. He likes the idea of applying “an engineering mindset” to the struggles he sees in medical research and the delivery of
health care.

“What can we do with informatics to solve real problems?” he asks. “What are creative approaches that push technology to the maximum to answer these complex questions?”

Published: Jun 30, 2015