Firas Wehbe, MD, PhD, assistant professor of Preventive Medicine in the Division of Health and Biomedical Informatics, has been appointed to the newly created role of chief research informatics officer (CRIO).
Wehbe will serve as the key executive responsible for integrating clinical research informatics applications at Feinberg and Northwestern Medicine. He will oversee infrastructure development and advise on how best to reuse the tremendous volume of data generated by clinical operations for research.
Wehbe has a wealth of experience in medical informatics, currently serving as the director of clinical research informatics at the Northwestern University Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute (NUCATS) and as associate director for clinical informatics in the Quantitative Data Sciences Core at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University.
“Firas has already done an outstanding job of elevating clinical data informatics within Feinberg, and I look forward to even greater things as a leader in this flourishing field,” said Rex Chisholm, PhD, vice dean for Scientific Affairs and Graduate Education and the Adam and Richard T. Lind Professor of Medical Genetics.
The first job on Wehbe’s docket is ensuring the alignment of Feinberg clinical research systems with Project One, Northwestern Medicine’s research data integration effort. Project One is scheduled to launch in early 2018.
“Over the last two years we’ve been working to enhance our clinical trial management and related systems to seamlessly interact with the Northwestern Memorial HealthCare clinical information systems,” Wehbe said. “We’ve revamped how electronic health records work with our Institutional Review Board system, our electronic data warehouse and any applications that use patient data.”
Once the systems are “speaking” to one another, Wehbe will turn his attention to ongoing improvements, including patient recruitment. Ensuring providers can see which studies are recruiting patients is important, Wehbe said, especially since patient encounters are very compressed and providers new to the Northwestern Medicine health system may be inexperienced with Northwestern Medicine research information systems.
“How do we find unobtrusive ways to insert information at the point of care so physicians recommend patients for trials?” Wehbe said. “We’ve learned a lot of lessons from Project One already, from the network and firewall levels all the way up to regulatory and finance concerns.”
However, the data flow isn’t just a one-way operation from the clinic to the lab. Emerging clinical programs, such as the Lurie Cancer Center OncoSET Precision Medicine Program, generate terabytes of research-derived data that can be used clinically to determine how advanced-stage tumors are treated.
According to Wehbe, the phenomenon of new CRIO roles in institutions across the country is reminiscent of chief medical informatics officer (CMIO) positions that proliferated when healthcare providers started transitioning to electronic medical records.
“As medical records became digitized, there was a need for a chief physician advocate embedded in the information technology organization,” Wehbe said. “This decade we see the research side catching up.”