Five Essential Qualities of Biomedical Informatics Leaders

By Zachary Durst and Hillary Ross, J.D.

While biomedical informatics as a field has existed for more than half a century, it has increased exponentially since the inception of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) clinical and translational science award (CTSA) in 2006. A primary reason is that CTSA has been, as promised, a strong resource to translational research that can be brought into the clinical care setting, as is evidenced by the large-scale expansion of published articles on the topic. Covid-19 provided an urgent test case for the value of clinical and translational science and its ability to impact the patient. Before and after the pandemic, we have witnessed a tremendous surge in the need for biomedical informatics leadership that can enable translational science, and that can integrate and bridge the gaps between basic science, clinical research, massive amounts of EHR and biomedical data, and the tools it takes to develop meaningful insights into novel studies, treatments and patient care.

Biomedical informatics leadership can take differing forms. Our firm has recruited more than 50 of these leaders in recent years. In some institutions we work with, leadership consists of a chair of a brand new or newly revitalized department of biomedical informatics. In other cases, the leader is that of an institute or center of biomedical informatics that spans the enterprise or multiple campuses. In each case, a strong biomedical informatics leader is someone with an understanding of where the field is, where is it going and how to recruit adequately at the mid-career and junior faculty level to create a self-sustaining organization.

To ultimately be successful, however, biomedical informatics leaders must have a number of essential qualities, and to wear different hats. We have spoken with these leaders and rising stars in biomedical informatics as well as the institutional leaders looking to hire them, and the following qualities stand out as the most critical for success: 

A collaborator. More than nearly any other field in medicine, nursing, pharmacology or the basic sciences, biomedical informatics requires team science to be successful. It cannot succeed in a vacuum. The best leaders in the field take that collaboration a step further by actively seeking out partnerships within their own institution and others across the country with similar areas of focus. When that highly collaborative leader then becomes the chair or director, it is a given that they will then seek out the same kinds of partnerships for their team as well as their department or institute. 

A connector. Whether the leader in biomedical informatics comes from clinical informatics, public health informatics, consumer informatics, nursing informatics or data science, they all have one quality in common. They are connectors for themselves and their teams, even in those areas that may not be their focus. For example, the director/chair may not be an expert on omics data, but they must be an expert in identifying how to connect those on their team who are omics experts with those in clinical domains that could use that expertise. The ability to politic is what differentiates a great biomedical informatics leader from just a good one.

A recruiter. In biomedical informatics, for a leader to be successful they will need to hire faculty and researchers, with a focus on diversity, from outside their core area of focus. For example, a leader with expertise in bioinformatics isn’t likely to be an expert in natural language processing but must find colleagues who can engage in that specialty. Thus, a strong leader needs to be willing and able to bring in informatics-related faculty outside of their own domain in order to broaden the scope of their organization and lead to stronger partnerships with the health system, medical school and outside organizations. It also shows the leader has an ability to think beyond themselves and their own research to make their biomedical informatics enterprise stronger. As we often tell clients, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” An effective biomedical informatics leader will be able to accomplish this.

Usually, the first hire for a biomedical informatics leader is that of a chief research informatics officer (CRIO) who will, in many ways, be the right hand of the chair and ensure the operations mission of the biomedical informatics group is fulfilled. A CRIO will help to build out the technical infrastructure and hire a team of developers, analysts and data scientists to provide informatics services to other departments and institutes in the organization. Beyond that, the chair will then need to decide if they want to create a team that is functionally focused such as vice chairs of education and research or specialty focused as vice chairs of bioinformatics, public health informatics, etc.

A visionary. Biomedical informatics is a fast-changing field. The increased availability of everything from sequencing machines to readily available, longitudinal EHR data to AI and advances in data science tools means that a strong biomedical informatics leader needs to think five to ten years ahead. They must build a pipeline of researchers and administrative structures to provide real contributions to their organization today but remain flexible enough to change over time as the field shifts and develops.

An expert in translation. The real value in a biomedical informatics leader comes from the ability to help improve relations with health system and other partners to bring cutting-edge science into a patient’s room to safely improve their care. Whether that is building learning models to identify disease vectors in a hospital or a precision treatment for cancer, biomedical informatics should always be focused on improving the quality of life and medical care through science. A biomedical informatician must be able to see beyond their own research to find practical applications. 

While biomedical informatics has come a long way in just the last few decades, there is still a long way to go. Having the right biomedical informatics leadership in place is essential for those institutions desiring to move to the front of the field of cutting-edge medicine.