Every day, visitors to Parkview Regional Medical Center drive past the Parkview Mirro Center for Research and Innovation as they enter the campus. Few, however, understand the role the Mirro Center plays in the care provided there.
“It is super unique to have a research unit like ours in a nonprofit, non-academic health system,” says Tammy Toscos, director of health services and informatics at the Mirro Center.
When people think of health care research, they usually consider clinical efforts. In recent years, however, the field of informatics has also become increasingly important. While the Mirro Center conducts both clinical and informatics research, the latter is where Toscos and her team focus their attention.
Simply put, informatics is the science of using data to drive decision-making. In a health care setting, this impacts how, when or what care is delivered. Data can be gleaned from sources such as wearable devices, electronic health records, social observation and more. Understandably, informatics researchers must possess a complex skill set.
“Our scientists have expertise across social psychology, developmental psychology, social computing, health informatics, epidemiology, user experience and computer science,” says Toscos. “It’s a diverse group that can handle a lot of hard problems.”
When informatics research became part of the Mirro Center in 2014, it addressed two main focus areas: cardiology and mental health. For example, groundbreaking cardiology work resulted in the ability to transfer information from implanted cardiac devices directly to patients so they can appropriately react to changes in their bodies. Mental health research has investigated the willingness of youth to embrace mental health technologies, with the goal of helping to prevent suicide. Ongoing research explores how social media impacts mental health outcomes, both positively and negatively.
“We’ve done some really impactful work in the computing field looking at a patient’s digital traces,” emphasizes Jessica Pater, manager of health services and research informatics.
The key to their effectiveness lies in collaboration and integration with the health system and the community, from businesses to schools to nonprofit agencies.
Pater, who joined Toscos at the Mirro Center in 2018, calls this unusual. “Prior to coming to Parkview, I worked at another research institute, and I rarely ever got to see the direct impact of my research,” she says. “The research we do here is directly integrated with clinics and providers. It’s really rare to have that kind of innovation loop.”
Mirro Center informatics scientists took on one of their toughest challenges starting in March 2020 with the arrival of COVID. As part of only a handful of health systems in the country doing their own predictive modeling, the Mirro Center collected and analyzed data to project the number of hospitalized patients the health system should anticipate so Parkview could be prepared with adequate resources. The team also worked with health officials and businesses to identify specific community needs so local agencies could respond appropriately.
Perhaps most notably, Mirro Center scientists created a detailed computer simulation of a vaccine clinic. This work enabled the team to identify staffing needs and bottlenecks in workflow so they could design efficient patient throughput, directly influencing operational decisions.
“We just leaned into COVID,” says Toscos. “We knew it would be a long-haul endeavor.”
Toscos and Pater represent a growing number of women in a field traditionally dominated by men. Along with what they call “hard-core computing,” informatics presents the opportunity to connect technology with human behavior. Attracting more women to computing and informatics is particularly important because the algorithms built become biased without a diverse group of people creating them.
“We need all of us together to understand how people use technology,” explains Pater. “It’s a symbiotic relationship.”
As they move forward, Toscos hopes the products, technologies, and ideas coming out of the Mirro Center will foster more collaboration beyond the health system.
“The health system has invested in this resource to make care better for the community,” says Toscos. “The scientists here are leaders in their field. When we all collaborate, we have a unique way of accelerating innovation in health care.”
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