Mining for data and a better doctor-patient relationship

Dr. Adam WrightDr. Adam Wright selected for 2016 Early Career Achievement Alumni Award

April 26, 2016

Adam Wright, Ph.D. '07, is a researcher who combines the technical, quantitative methods needed to develop electronic health record systems and the ability to qualitatively evaluate them: How do electronic health records work in a clinic? Do they help improve patient health? How? 

Dr. Wright, who has a B.S. in Mathematical and Computational Sciences from Stanford University, became attracted to a career in health care and clinical informatics once he understood the practical applications of quantitative methods. 

"If you use computers well in finance, you make a lot of money," Dr. Wright said. "If you use computers well in health care, you help a lot of people. The social component was what I found appealing."

Tech wunderkind

The 34-year-old has long been fascinated with technology. He started his own information technology consulting business when he was 14 and, in college, he worked summers as an Intel Corp. engineer. 

When looking at graduate schools, he selected OHSU School of Medicine for its strength in informatics. It was also a relatively young program. "It was attractive because I was interested in helping shape the program's direction," he said. While at OHSU, Wright served as a student representative on its curriculum committee.

As a student at OHSU, he helped the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) develop a national action plan, or road map, for embedding information about medical best practices in a nationwide electronic health information network. He continued to work on that effort as a visiting scholar in 2005 in HHS's Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology in Washington, D.C.

He became the first person to receive a Ph.D. in biomedical informatics from OHSU in 2007. His Ph.D. thesis was awarded the OHSU School of Medicine's John A. Resko Award for Outstanding Dissertation. Around that time, his interest and appreciation in approaching electronic health records from a qualitative perspective grew. 

"I honestly think that if I hadn't gone to OHSU and done the rigorous qualitative work, I'm not sure I would have added that to my toolkit," Dr. Wright said. "The two types of skills are really complementary."

EHR focus

Dr. Wright is now an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, where he teaches introductory courses on biomedical informatics, and a senior scientist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. He is also the director of research at Clinical Informatics Research Collaborative (CIRCLE), a research collaborative focused on investigating issues related to health information technology and electronic health records. 

Much of Dr. Wright's research focuses on how to make electronic health records more effective. He is the principal investigator of two research projects funded by the National Institutes of Health. 

One investigates clinical decision support systems and how electronic health record systems can be designed to provide doctors with reminders for important screenings and vaccinations and to alert them when a drug will negatively interact with another drug the patient is taking.

The second project focuses on how to build and organize a patient's medical history. Oftentimes, Dr. Wright says, electronic health records are modeled after paper medical records, which organize similar data elements together –all the information about a patient's blood pressure in place, everything about a patient's weight in another, and so on. 

"That's not the way people think about patients or see patients," Dr. Wright said. "We'd like to reorganize the electronic health records to be more problem oriented, so when doctors use the record, it more closely fit with the way their mind works." 

"Very gifted programmer"

Dr. Wright – who speaks about his research and electronic health records with effusive enthusiasm – is motivated to investigate how electronic health record systems can be designed to improve health care. 

"It's an exciting place to be, because if the systems are well-designed, it can improve the communication between the patient and the doctor, recall and find historical information, [and] help doctors make better decisions," Dr. Wright said. "On the flip side, if they are poorly developed, it can be an impediment between the patient and the doctor." 

David Bates, M.D. R '86, M.Sc., senior vice president and chief innovation officer at Brigham and Women's Hospital, has worked with Dr. Wright for ten years. 

"He is a very gifted programmer and one of the leading young informaticians in the country," Dr. Bates said, because he can marry the qualitative and quantitative approaches in his research.

"Adam built a tool that lets hospitals track how their decision support is working," Dr. Bates said. "This has been very popular and is now being used in several organizations."  

Dr. Wright received the American Medical Informatics Association's New Investigator award and was recently elected a fellow of the American College of Medical Informatics.

"We are delighted that Adam has been awarded the School of Medicine Early Career Alumni Award," said William Hersh, M.D., chair and professor of medical informatics and clinical epidemiology in the OHSU School of Medicine. "He was the first student to complete our Ph.D. program and has set the bar high for those who have followed him. He has been extremely successful as a faculty member at Harvard Medical School, and is likely to continue his success and leadership going forward."

Driven by conviction

On top of teaching and his research, Dr. Wright also conducts site visits with his CIRCLE collaborators. 

Recently, Dr. Wright visited a hospital in Houston, Texas, to evaluate the hospital's experience with its electronic health record system. Dr. Wright and colleagues interviewed the hospital's IT department and clinicians who use the record system. 

"One thing that happens, for better or worse, is that you develop something that seems like the perfect technical solution, and it's only when you go to the hospitals and the clinics and understand the reality of the situation that you understand why it doesn't work," he said. "It is a key part of really understanding why the technical things succeed or fail." 

Dr. Wright is driven by the conviction that electronic health records can help achieve health care reform's "Triple Aim" of provide better health care, efficiency and lowering costs. 

"I am totally optimistic about electronic health records," he said. "They reduce errors and improve safety and quality. We need to work hard to make them as effective as possible."

Learn about the Early Career Achievement Award

Written by Amanda Waldroupe, photo by Tony Rinaldo