A Goal in Mind—International Clinician Kicks Off A Career in Biomedical Informatics
Oct 16, 2020 11:00 AM
When Yogesh Reddy was growing up in Mumbai, India, his idea of achieving success was becoming a professional soccer player. As he got older, Reddy’s natural drive and athleticism served him well on the playing field and contributed to building his determination in sports and academics. Reddy was talented enough to play soccer at a college level. But, despite his love for the game, Reddy had a different goal in mind.
A sports-related injury led to a pause in Reddy’s soccer career, and he realized he could still accomplish great things off the field. Reddy turned his full attention to earning his Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS)—equivalent to a Doctor of Medicine (MD) in the United States—from Mahatma Gandhi Mission's Medical College in Aurangabad, Maharashtra, India. After Reddy completed his degree and required rotations, he began work as a researcher for the Public Health Foundation of India.
As a self-described empath, Reddy enjoyed the close human connection with patients, and cherished the shared joy that comes with creating better health. But he also knew there were ways he could improve his patients’ experiences by learning more about health care systems and using data to change these systems for the better.
In India, electronic charting systems aren’t widely implemented. During Reddy’s medical practice, he noticed the large amount of time he, and other physicians, spent manually recording information, sifting through paper files, and performing other administrative tasks. When Reddy sought solutions, he discovered the field of biomedical informatics, and the first-of-its-kind program specific to that discipline at the University of Utah School of Medicine.
“When I came to Utah from India, it was important for me to get a holistic feel for American health care,” Reddy says. “I knew the breadth of experiences and hands-on curriculum offered at the University of Utah would give me first-hand observation of the medical system and tools to address the issues I was seeing.”
“The researchers here are pioneering the creation of clinical support tools,” Reddy continues. “This is a great place to learn from the biggest names in the industry.”
What is Biomedical Informatics?
Having a clinical background gives Reddy a solid perspective on some of the issues that can be resolved using biomedical informatics tools. Providers rely on biomedical informatics to make decisions for patients, using collected information and complex algorithms to create predictive models that increase treatment accuracy and save time.
For example, patients with a chronic condition, such as diabetes, require regular monitoring, frequent checkups, and a battery of tests on a continual basis. The burden of scheduling care, following up, recording results, and planning treatment falls on doctors and their teams. This quickly adds up in terms of cost and time. Systems like the ones designed within the biomedical informatics program at the University of Utah help control these costs by sending automated reminders, prompting patient self-reports and scheduling, and monitoring follow-up.
“As a clinician, I see the need to integrate health and technology systems to better serve both doctors and patients,” says Reddy. “I’ve always been focused on how to improve the patient experience. But we also need to provide physicians and support staff with the tools they need.”
“We see these systems as a huge resource in controlling costs and preventing physician burn-out,” explains Damian Borbolla, MD, MS, Assistant Professor in the University of Utah’s Department of Biomedical Informatics (DBMI), and director of the master’s program.
Master’s in biomedical informatics at the University of Utah
Borbolla is an experienced leader in the world of clinic informatics, and has been a catalyst in pioneering the DBMI curriculum. Borbolla says the department’s Master of Science program is designed for students interested in combining information and electronic systems to improve health care and patient experience—an ideal fit for someone like Reddy.
“A lot of applicants are interested in the altruistic nature of health care, and this becomes an alternative to a career in medicine,” Borbolla says. “Participants are eager to tackle big issues and solve real-world challenges. They’re looking for ways to arm themselves with tools to improve care on a population level.”
The program is small but competitive, accepting only 30-40% of their applicant pool per year. This results in an intimate group, averaging 35 students each year.
According to Robert Barber, Senior Academic Coordinator at the DBMI, students enter the program from an array of backgrounds, from bicycle mechanics to medical doctors like Reddy.
“We choose diverse applicants because these systems are applied across a diversity of fields,” Barber says. “Graduates leave the program fully understanding all the realms of possibility in biomedical informatics. Their degree is employment-focused, so most are able to step directly into jobs in their field.”
Students can specialize their degree track, choosing from three options: Applied Clinical Informatics, Data Science, or Bioinformatics. Curriculum is designed with direct input from advisors, students, and industry professionals. This gives students a distinct advantage because cutting-edge technologies or industry updates are incorporated directly into classes in real time. Faculty are nimble and driven to see students succeed.
“The professors in the program are engaged with every single student,” Reddy says. “They make time for questions, and put in so much effort—they’re always there to discuss and support.”
Most students take classes in person, but some opt for an online curriculum. The program is designed to be completed within two years, although students can self-pace based on individual needs. Classes are fluid, with recorded lectures and hands-on meetings in the early evening. This added flexibility makes the program ideal for students working while in school. It also gives some the ability to take on time-intensive internships, practicums, and once-in-a-lifetime research opportunities.
Reddy checked off several of these boxes during his time in the program. He took on two practicums under Borbolla, and a more advanced research assistantship during his last year of the program.
“Yogesh was very active in engaging with faculty and seeking out research opportunities to diversify his skillset,” Borbolla says.
During his second year in the program, Reddy was tapped to work with Julio C. Facelli, PhD, Professor and Vice Chair of the Department of Biomedical Informatics, on the Patient-Reported Outcomes Measurement Information System (PROMIS) Project. The goal was to address clinical workflow issues surrounding information gathered through patient experience surveys. This included concerns such as scheduling follow-up appointments, determining ongoing treatment, and figuring out ways to manage the vast amounts of data reported through the surveys.
Reddy regularly met with physicians from the University of Utah Hospital, connecting over a common clinical background and exploring the issues. Then, Reddy leveraged his newly garnered technical knowledge to extract and merge relevant data into complex algorithms to create predictive models.
“His understanding of clinical processes was great,” Borbolla recalls. “As our work progressed, Yogesh discovered areas he could learn more and sought out those opportunities to improve and broaden his skill set.”
This type of research and problem-solving is changing health care for the better, helping providers maximize time with patients, and provide better treatment outcomes.
“This work is important because it gives patients a voice in their own health care, but also provides solutions for providers overwhelmed with administrative work and all the data,” Reddy explains.
As a student, Reddy says this hands-on experience and real-world application reinforced each other throughout the program.
“I got to perform everything I was learning in my courses, which shaped how I was looking at the field,” Reddy says.
Borbolla also appreciated Reddy’s skills on an interpersonal level. Reddy often contributed to projects by sending detailed weekly updates and asking insightful questions that ultimately helped drive the scope of the project.
“Yogesh is a scientist, but he has a great natural ability to connect with people,” Borbolla says. “He is a great leader—responsive and responsible.”
Industry Advisory Board
DBMI faculty work to create a sense of community for all students through meetings, activities, and seminars. One of the most valuable opportunities is the chance to connect with current industry professionals through the DBMI’s Industry Advisory Board (IAB). The IAB interacts with 20-plus industry-leading companies, connecting students to critical practicums, internships, and job opportunities.
The IAB evolves to meet the needs of the program’s students, continually seeking new partners, and utilizing company feedback to curate academic requirements in line with industry advancements.
“Our goal is to facilitate real-life work experiences and relationships for our students, while helping companies hire the highest caliber of employees available,” says Cathy Bradley, Executive Assistant to the Chair and Manager of Industry Relations for the DBMI program.
The DBMI hosts a for-credit seminar course, using the IAB to source corporate representatives. The course engages students and these businesses in a unique networking and learning environment. Selected employers are invited to speak about their company and the needs of their field. Students gain face time with industry professionals, sometimes shaping the course of their ongoing education or employment, as they learn about the vast array of opportunities available.
“The IAB was an exceptional avenue to meet leaders in our field,” Reddy says. “We had access to high-level connections in different corporations. Hearing from the speakers gave us a solid understanding of what skills were valued, and how to apply those needs to our curriculum work. It was eye-opening to learn how businesses see the domain growing in the future.”
Yogesh maximized the IAB seminar as a key part of his experience, building a deeper understanding of industry knowledge, and garnering professional connections. Ultimately, these connections along with Yogesh’s exemplary education and work ethic, placed him in line for a competitive position with IAB partner, Highmark Healthcare, shortly after graduation.
Highmark is a new-school blended health organization that relies heavily on data management practices like BMI.
“Our company’s mission is to create streamlined health care services, accessible and understandable to a vast population of consumers,” Morgan Templar, Vice President of Data Management, Platform Data, Product, and Development for Highmark Health explains. “The University of Utah’s Biomedical Informatics master’s program enriches students with a unique combination of skills critical to the development of data management in our field.”
Templar and her colleagues at Highmark cite the holistic approach and ethical standards of the DBMI program in producing graduates acutely attuned to the growing needs of the health care industry.
“It’s a privilege to work together with the university as students build their careers,” Templar says. “Yogesh clearly demonstrated a rare series of traits specific to the breadth of this program.”
Reddy’s Next Steps
Reddy was immediately drawn to Highmark during one of the IAB’s signature seminars. Highmark’s mission of creating accessible health care resonated with Reddy. He reached out to the company’s representative as soon as possible, noting his interest, and passing along his resume.
Reddy’s hiring managers keyed into his disciplined business acumen, keen knowledge of best practices in data handling, and astute questions about the company’s projects.
“He was asking questions about issues we were still brainstorming,” says Shashank Laxminarayan Suresh, Manager of Data Science, Analytic Enablement at Highmark.
“Yogesh is extremely well suited for this position because he has a unique combination of assets with his incredible background as a medical doctor, and the addition of his master’s degree in biomedical informatics,” Suresh says. “We needed someone with a deep clinical knowledge, who could transfer and translate data into technical requirements for certain systems.”
Reddy is quick to credit his education in the DBMI program for giving him a solid platform to begin this stage of his career.
“The cumulative experiences in the program prepared me for this career. I use six or seven different skills in my job every day, and I had a course in the program that educated me on each one,” Reddy explains. “I learned everything from basic informatics principles to the latest technologies, all of which can be leveraged to solve problems within health care.”
Yogesh has already started his new role with Highmark, and is relocating to the company’s headquarters in Pittsburgh. He talks enthusiastically about building and supporting the systems he hopes will ultimately revolutionize health care in the United States and his native India.
As for soccer, Reddy still plays and watches matches whenever he gets the chance. But he still has a bigger end goal in mind.
“I want to learn as much as I can as a professional working in this field,” Reddy says. “In the long run, I’d like to pursue my PhD and focus on building robust clinical decision support systems to better serve providers and patients. For me, the greatest success is continually improving care and using these tools to achieve better health outcomes.”