In medicine, notes Tingting Zhao, Ph.D., there’s no such thing as too much information. “When it comes to making the best decisions for their patients, doctors always want to know more,” she says. An assistant professor of Information Systems and Analytics and a faculty fellow with Bryant’s Center of Health and Behavioral Sciences, Zhao is an emerging leader in healthcare informatics, a field that provides new insights into keeping us healthier and better informed.
Zhao, an accomplished researcher, studies a range of topics at the intersection of data, technology, and medical knowledge. That fusion, she says, is an important and exciting frontier with limitless potential. “By combining all three of them, we can make better decisions in terms of public policy, disease control, and disease prevention,” says Zhao, who will be teaching in Bryant’s new Healthcare Informatics graduate program this fall.
As technology evolves, it produces more information than ever before. Some estimates suggest that the healthcare industry generates as much as 30 percent of the world’s data, a number that could rise to 36 percent by 2025, according to RBC Capital Markets. Healthcare informatics, which integrates healthcare sciences, computer science, information science, and cognitive science, helps practitioners figure out new ways to use data to enhance delivery of care, improve patient education, and inform public health policy.
It is now more crucial than ever that professionals have the skills and knowledge to understand, use, and innovate with data, says Zhao, pointing to the rise of precision medicine, an emerging approach for disease treatment and prevention that takes into account individual variability in genes, environment, and lifestyle. It’s a competitive and exciting area, she says — one fueled by a desire to create new ways to treat patients. “We can develop more efficient systems to not just record that data but to use it to make informed decisions as well.”
“The whole world is realizing we should put more resources into developing new technologies to help us provide better healthcare and better understand what makes us sick."
Personal health devices such as Apple Watches and Fitbits are other examples of the health information revolution, states Zhao. “We are connecting with and developing new pieces of component technology and new techniques that we can use as analytical tools to analyze patient behaviors,” she says.
The COVID-19 pandemic, Zhao says, drastically raised awareness of the value of the field and led to a massive influx of funding for data-related healthcare projects on the national level, taking it from roughly $23 billion to nearly $96 billion. “The whole world is realizing we should put more resources into developing new technologies to help us provide better healthcare and better understand what makes us sick,” she states.
An expert in machine learning, a branch of artificial intelligence and computer science that focuses on the use of data and algorithms to imitate the way humans learn, Zhao developed her passion for combining data science with healthcare as a doctoral student, when she discovered the thrill of knowing that something she worked on could one day help real life patients. “It was exciting to know this was the future,” she says.
Zhao has since contributed to a variety of projects, including a National Institutes of Health-funded collaboration with Harvard Medical School and Northeastern Group to develop algorithms that can identify Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and make predictions regarding its progress. Her most recent research study, which involved developing and honing algorithms to identify which genes respond to specific perturbation stressors, which can provide a better understanding of the underlying mechanisms of disease and advance the identification of new drug targets, was published in the prestigious journal Briefings in Bioinformatics.
"This is an opportunity to do meaningful work that benefits the entire community."
Students in the university’s Healthcare Informatics graduate program, Zhao says, will gain exposure to research conducted by their professors, including opportunities to join them in scholarly work. “When students come here, they can learn what truly goes on in the field,” says Zhao, who cites working with junior partners on research projects as one of her favorite parts of being a professor.
The program aligns well with Bryant’s other new graduate programs in Data Science and Business Analytics, notes Zhao, who is teaching courses in both. This provides opportunities for ideas to cross-pollinate and lead to new insights and innovations. The healthcare informatics field, specifically, is ideal for curious people who want to explore — and to find ways to use their talents and their education to help others.
“This is an opportunity to do meaningful work that benefits the entire community,” says Zhao.