Introducing the Health Center

By M.L. Baker  |  Posted 2004-04-01 Print this article Print

Scientists, clinicians and physicians may be surprised to see themselves lumped together in the same sentence, but they face many of the same challenges when considering IT in the workplace.

Scientists who want to study interactions of proteins and genes rarely talk to the clinicians collecting data from human drug trials, let alone the physicians treating patients and navigating the vast health care infrastructure, or the engineers that manufacture drugs and reagents. Indeed, scientists, clinicians, and physicians might be surprised to see themselves lumped together in the same sentence. After all, they think about very different issues, and they approach them in very different ways. However, if I counted the most pressing IT challenges—incompatible data standards, a need for common protocols and interoperable systems, a highly-fragmented knowledge base—each group could claim that list as its own.
At the same time, many specialists find that software designed to serve everyones needs generally doesnt. The director of global IT at Schnectady International Inc. recently told the American Chemical Societys Chemistry and Engineering News that it had passed over enterprise resource planning systems from giant J.D. Edwards for industry specific Ross Systems Inc., saying that the company didnt need ten dozen different ways to track purchasing and that capturing "tremendous amounts" of unnecessary data was simply too expensive. Besides, smaller software providers were more willing to tweak their software to fit individual clients needs, Schnectady Internationals director said.
Meanwhile, "homegrown" solutions thrive in the research system: graduate students are famous for tapping out a few lines of code to bridge gaps in software that is already an accretion of previous researchers contributions. In other words, even as professionals call for better ways for their systems and people to work together, information technology and individuals expertise are becoming more specialized. Most of the data that laboratories create today in pursuit of better science will not ultimately, improve patient care. That is not because the data are irrelevant, but because physicians and laboratories are unable to share information. What has become painfully obvious to the industry, more data does not mean more drugs. Information collection and management is among the most expensive, and common, aspects of drug discovery. But industry executives who have moved resources into information technologies have not seen faster drug development. Indeed, complaints of "information overload" pervade the industry. Most firms say that their systems are not optimized. Even the research teams ideas of what is optimal is uncertain. Many feel that more data has stalled, rather than stimulated, discovery. Part of the solution to this disconnect will be technical. Dealing with greater quantities of data means more storage, more RAM, and faster, better processing. We need more tools that can mine data and detect meaningful relationships and patterns. Equally important, we need improved ways to convey those patterns and relationships that help human brains grasp them intuitively. The rest of the solution, however, must be cultural. Committees to develop common technology standards already exist. They must be given the resources to implement these standards. Groups within organizations and across organizations must look beyond their own immediate tasks, and must learn what their colleagues across the company, country and even around the world are doing. We hope that eWEEK.coms new industry center, devoted to the IT used by the health care and life sciences communities, will be one of these forces. Health Care Center Co-editor Monya Baker has a long experience in the health care and biosciences industry, as a writer, researcher and educator.
Monya Baker is co-editor of's Health Care Center. She has written for publications including the journal Nature Biotechnology, the Acumen Journal of Sciences and the American Medical Writers Association, among others, and has worked as a consultant with biotechnology companies. A former high school science teacher, Baker holds a bachelor's degree in biology from Carleton College and a master's of education from Harvard.

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