By: Dominique Tobbell

For fifty years, health informaticians at the University of Minnesota have epitomized interprofessionalism in research and education. When the University’s Academic Health Center was created in 1970 and a “team approach” to education, research, and practice was made a core tenet of its mission, the health computer science faculty (a precursor to the current health informatics faculty) was already fulfilling this mission. Indeed, one of the goals of the Biomedical Data Processing Unit (BDPU, the first institutional iteration of health informatics at the University) was “to contribute the accumulated knowledge and experience” of the unit’s staff “toward computer utilization in health care [sic] analysis, health care [sic] delivery, and health science research.” In the BDPU’s 1968 annual report, the unit’s director, Eugene Ackerman, PhD, highlighted some of the large data-handling projects his staff had collaborated on that past year. Included among them were the Minnesota Coronary Survey and the Red Lake Indian Study. In the Minnesota Coronary Survey Project, the BDPU’s informaticians worked with epidemiologists in the School of Public Health to track the relationship of cardiac risk factors to the incidence of coronary disease. Their work involved getting a weekly census of all the participating patients at seven of the state’s hospitals and printing meal labels for every patient indicating whether they would receive treatment or control diet. In the Red Lake Indian Study, the BDPU’s informaticians supported the work of physicians in laboratory medicine and pediatrics on a prospective study of streptococcal and staphylococcal infections in children living on the Red Lake Indian Reservation. The informaticians were responsible for handling the data produced by the detailed laboratory bacteriology and urinalysis reports collected every two weeks for two years on several hundred children.

Sixteen years later, this commitment to interprofessionalism was still strong. In 1984, the Division of Health Computer Sciences (DHCS, the second institutional iteration of health informatics at the University) received its first National Library of Medicine Research Training in Medical Informatics grant (it would go on to receive continual NLM research training grant funding through 2009). The first group of NLM fellows included Judith Graves, PhD, RN whose research, under the supervision of nursing faculty member Sheila Corcoran, PhD, RN, included the use of computer support in clinical decision-making and the design and development of knowledge bases to support nursing clinical practice. Graves was a foundational leader in the field of nursing informatics (and went on to serve as the post-doctoral supervisor of Connie Delaney, PhD, RN, current Acting Director of the Institute for Health Informatics and Dean of the University of Minnesota School of Nursing). Because of her work and others, Minnesota was one of the first institutions to be recognized for interdisciplinary training. In a recent interview, Milton Corn, MD, Deputy Director for Research and Education at the NLM reflected that Minnesota’s NLM training program “took more seriously, than any other program I can think of, early… interest in nursing informatics rather than the physician-centric point of view that predominated.”

In 1987, the DHCS’s first dental fellow arrived. Under the supervision of Laël Gatewood, PhD, Paul Lang, DDS, MPH, investigated the use of computers to gather and analyze information for health- and business-related decision-making in dentistry, the analysis of dental databases, and the quality assessment of dental practices. The NLM fellows’ year of 1993 perhaps best showcases what Gatewood (director, DHCS from 1979 to 2000) sees as one of the distinctive features of Minnesota’s health informatics program: “it illustrated that a program that was created for training of medical professionals, students, residents, [and] physicians could equally be used with profit by all health professionals.” That year, the NLM fellows included two nurses, an optical scientist, a pharmacy doctoral student (who had also trained as a dental hygienist and held a Master of Public Health), a computer scientist, and five physicians. The following year, the program saw the arrival of its first veterinary informatician, one of the first such informaticians to combine clinical practice recording with the collection of a database on disease and interventions in companion animals. “So I would say,” Gatewood continues, the University of Minnesota “was one of the first interprofessional examples of truly health computing.”

Today, the faculty of the Institute for Health Informatics includes core faculty with co-appointments in the College of Pharmacy, School of Nursing, Medical School, and the Carlson School of Management, and affiliated faculty with appointments in the College of Veterinary Medicine, School of Dentistry, School of Public Health and College of Science and Engineering. As it has for fifty years, the Institute for Health Informatics exemplifies the interprofessional mission of the University of Minnesota Academic Health Center and embodies what leaders in health care have long recognized: that interprofessional research, education, and practice are essential to innovative health care.