Graham School News

Dr. Sam Volchenboum and Dr. Cheng-Kai Kao Speak to Biomedical Informatics on "Digital Health Today" Podcast

Advances in technology have resulted in vast amounts of data becoming available to researchers and healthcare administrators. Organizing, analyzing, and utilizing this information for translational research that bridges discovery and clinical care is one of the biggest challenges facing the current generation of data scientists. The University of Chicago’s Master of Science in Biomedical Informatics (MScBMI) prepares students to lead healthcare’s evolution into an era where organizations will apply their data to meet these goals.

Hear from Faculty Director Dr. Sam Volchenboum and Assistant Professor Dr. Cheng-Kai Kao as they speak with Digital Health Today about the importance of training and preparing the next generation of leaders in healthcare. Tune in to hear from Volchenboum and Kao as they share insight into the MScBMI program, the need it is preparing students to address, and examples of ways students remain engaged in class.

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Dan: Welcome back to Digital Health Today the place to be to get the insights of leaders making the healthcare of tomorrow available today. I’m your host, Dan Kendall and this is a coffee talk.

We’re always honored and privileged to bring you conversations with innovators and leaders who are working to make change happen in healthcare. And as we record these interviews, I’m always aware that the most important person who’s a part of each of these episodes is someone who doesn’t even have a mic. That person is you and the thousands of people that tune in to hear each of our guests. We really appreciate your support and interest as we grow our reach and do our part to accelerate and support the success of those working in digital health. We literally couldn’t do this without you tuning in and being a part of what we do. 

And another important part of the community is made up of the partners and sponsors who helped to support us. We’re really privileged to work with some of the leading organizations in healthcare. And in this coffee talk, I invited two leaders from one of our sponsors to share some of their insights and expertise and one of the most important areas of healthcare right now, Biomedical Informatics. 


The University of Chicago Master of Science in Biomedical Informatics is an amazing program that’s run in Chicago. And as you can infer from the name, the program goes deep and informatics methodology. It also teaches things like effective communication skills and how to manage complex Biomedical Informatics projects, something that’s extraordinarily relevant and pertinent now and I’m sure will continue to be in the future. And it also teaches some entrepreneurial and innovation skills across the various courses. 

With me in our virtual studio is Dr. Sam Volchenboum and Dr. Cheng-Kai Kao to tell us more about the ways they’re training and preparing the leaders we need for the healthcare of today and tomorrow. 

Sam, I want to start with you. You are a pediatric oncologist at University of Chicago. You’re an MD PhD, you’re the Associate Professor of Pediatrics and the associate chief research informatics officer for the Biological Sciences Division at the University of Chicago. And through your career, you’ve combined your medical training, and informatics training and applied that to healthcare and building this program at the University of Chicago. So, tell me, first of all, about the Master of Science of Biomedical Informatics and what it provides to the trainees who attend.


Sam: Yeah, you know, obviously, data science has become an exploding field and that’s nowhere more apparent than in healthcare. And the amount of data that we’re collecting across the industry is phenomenal and the number of people we have that actually know how to use and leverage those data is inadequate. And it became apparent to me that if we’re going to have a deep skill at University of Chicago in Healthcare Informatics that we needed to train our own and provide a training program that would attract people to University of Chicago. 

So, as I thought about building a program here, it was important that we built a program that would give our trainees a deep understanding in data science. So, it wouldn’t just be about how to use electronic health records or how to create rules for standardized care in the hospital. We really wanted to do that, plus, give everybody a very deep background in computer programming and data analytics in machine learning and artificial intelligence. And so, we built a rigorous program around those principles. And I think we’ve achieved those goals based on the kinds of students we’re attracting and the kind of graduates we’re producing now.


Dan: How long has this program been going and actually, what kind of people are attracted? Is it more technical people who would like to develop some healthcare expertise or healthcare professionals who would like to develop some technical understanding and expertise?


Sam: Yeah, so we started enrolling back in 2015 and we’ve attracted all sorts of really interesting students. So, of course, we’re bringing in part of our target group, which are medical trainees, so medical students, fellows, residents, faculty and it’s really important that we have a place for those folks to train so that they can develop a data science career alongside their healthcare career much in the same way that I did. But at the same time, we’re attracting, of course, folks from industry so from pharmaceutical companies from other data science companies, both inside and outside of healthcare. 

And one of the unique things about our program is that we put side by side, both the people that have only computer science or data backgrounds alongside folks that may only have healthcare backgrounds. And we work very hard to try to equalize the playing field so both of those groups can work together and leverage each other’s skill sets and learn from each other. So, it’s, I think, a pretty unique setting that we have.


Dan: Kai, I’d like to bring you in on the conversation. And like Sam, you’ve got a long list of titles and roles that you play at the University of Chicago. You’re an assistant professor, an academic hospitalist in the Department of Medicine. You’re also the Associate Chief Medical Information Officer and the Medical Director for the Office of International Programs. 

Seeing how healthcare has worked historically and the change that is necessary – how do you prepare students so they are equipped to change the way the healthcare system works? And how does digital health and innovation (entrepreneurship) play a part in what you teach students, and preparing them for the roles they will have in healthcare?



Kai: So, the thing I really want to say is, you know, just think about how people are being treated or traditionally how healthcare system has been shaped. It has been in the past a very authority- based system where doctor told the patient to do X and then you know, the patient follow and if they don’t follow, we have non-compliance, the terminology to say that you are not compliant with what I recommended. That was a very authority or physician based or centered system. 

Now moving forward, you know, we have this conversation about patient centered care, where a patient should really take more ownership in their health, be responsible for what they decide, but also, in the meantime, being able to give the critical input about what they want. So, there’s a shifting from a physician-based model to a patient-centered model. But I don’t think we really have the model live and really applicable in real life until we have digital health. Because before we really have all the information from the patient, you know, allowing them to make informed decision, before we really have a scheduling system that’s very familiar with them so they can, for example, schedule their appointment, before we have a model where allowing them to participate in the decision of their treatments through the shared decision making model, how can we say it’s a patient-centered model? 


So, I think the notion of digital health or also where I think inform assist can really help in this angle is how do we redesign and rethink about the system should be done and then come up with this elements that are still missing in the current chain of communication and amend that system to make it in a way that’s truly patient-centered to patient leading in terms of a lot of these medical decision is made to them? This is why I think informatics is very important because the only, not the only, there are many challenges here. But one big challenge is how do we actually translate these system needs into optimal IT solution that actually can work on both worlds, both the patient and the physician? And so, in the course of that, I teach about healthcare, innovation, entrepreneurship. 

You know, in a very first class, I usually tell the student that maybe not all of you need to be entrepreneurs, but you should all be at least the innovator in your unit, wherever you’re going to work at.


Dan: Thanks, Kai. That’s really great framing for solving problems that they’ll be asked to solve when they’re back out in the workforce. Of course, both of you teach courses at the University of Chicago as part of this program. The program is the master of science and biomed informatics. And Sam, you mentioned in a previous conversation that you’d like to engage with students earlier in the program. Tell me a little bit about the courses you teach and how that’s helping students prepare for the complexities that they’re going to address in Biomedical Informatics.


Sam: Yeah, I’ve always thought it’s been important to try to interact with the students early. So, I’ve been enjoying teaching the intro to Biomedical Informatics course, which is basically a broad overview of all the areas of Biomedical Informatics and it’s really the first time that some of these students are seeing those areas. So, it’s been very enjoyable for me to help give some of these students their very first introduction to some of these topics. And then I work to develop a course that focuses on ethics and legal issues in big data. And we look at a lot of really interesting topics and ideas across the entire spectrum of Biomedical Informatics, about how we use data, how we leverage it and some of the ethical and legal implications of those areas.


Dan: Thanks, Sam. And Kai, similar question to you. What can you tell us about the courses that you teach and how those lessons are made most relevant and impactful for preparing leaders for a career in biomedical informatics?


Kai: Yeah, so I teach two courses. One is clinical decision support. And that one is about how we use the computer system to help physician make decisions. And the other course that I teach is healthcare innovation and entrepreneurship. This is a course, where I teach students who cultivate potential digital health startups or entrepreneurship ideas or even just an innovation that they have in mind. So, for both courses, I would say that I emphasize a lot about learning by doing, because I really think that’s the way to learn about how informatics is about. It’s not through tests about multiple choice questions is really about what did you pick up from the course and how do we apply that in a real world. 

So, for both courses, they are asked to deliver a final projects at the end of the 10 week course, is a presentation. There’re of course, different requirements based on which course they are in. But the principle here is always making sure they pick up something from a class by applying that into the project they have in mind and actually execute that as much as they can, you know, in this time window.


Dan: We’ve seen in the real world that things can change very quickly in healthcare. So, how in a program like this, how do you make sure that the coursework is relevant so that the students can actually keep engaged in what’s happening in the real world and learn how to solve problems that are really facing healthcare systems?


Kai: Let me make an example from the healthcare innovation course that I teach. So, you know, in the beginning of the course, I ask them to think about something that they really want to improve in real life in the healthcare system. And this can be idea come from themselves or come from their family members or friends. And I ask them to sort of interview, you know, with different stakeholders or customers throughout the course. Then throughout the course, we teach them about different concepts, not just informatics, but also about some business ideas they have to know about in how to talk to investors and all that. At the end of the course, they are presenting the project as if they are presenting to a bunch of investors. And I invite all the other students to be those potential investors. 

So, it’s like a shark tank. You know, the students present their projects and they have a lot of different advisors, you know, their classmates sit in there. And each one of them were given some number of a budget. And everyone can decide whether they want to invest in other startups’ ideas of the classmates or maybe just in one or two of them. And then in the end, whoever to have the highest funding actually get some bonus points for that course. So, it’s just a way to really make it more real, also in the meantime to get a more prepare for what’s happening. Because it’s important for any entrepreneurs or innovator to think from both sides. Both as an innovator but also think as an investor with decision maker, which project makes sense or sound more important to you? So, the better they know about the both worlds, the better they can be in their roles to speak to the importance and make it sound impactful and important for people to devote more resources to.


Dan: Now, I saw that you also cover some topics that relate more to like manufacturing principles and you are relating those to the healthcare systems. I mean, one of those was Lean Management. And I understand you’re using something like Lean Management to help empower people in healthcare. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?


Kai: Yeah, there are many applications and also different tools that the healthcare has adopted from Lean Management, which originally come from Toyota industry. But basically, I want to say first, there’s a lot of ways in healthcare system. And this is where a traditional manufacturing principle can really help us to think about in a process where we can really realign, reengineer and save some of the cost, because there’s really a lot exponential growth in terms of healthcare costs in the US. Also, in that central principle of Lean Management, the other piece that I really like about that we do anywhere in Chicago Medical Center is to empower the frontline staff. It’s not about a very centralized system where the leaders make all the decision, is more about empowering the frontline staff to go through these different, smaller, but reiterative projects, to go through and see what they can improve in their current workflow. 


I also have a class, you know, basically in Chicago medicine where we have constantly about seven to eight activities across the medical center area where people have gone through what we call Kaizen events, really going through where they think can be improved. And they have a group of frontline workers get together and discuss what they can have done. And then the outcome of these is a report out to the leadership and then the design how do we devise a strategy, actually to achieve that?


Dan: Now, one of the things that I’ve heard a lot about in your program are the capstone projects that your students do. And I understand this really positioned students to focus on a particular area of informatics. What can you tell us about the capstone projects and how this really prepare students to work out in the healthcare environment?


Kai: Yeah, informatics is really broad. You can have probably a couple of people doing informatics and in reality they are all doing very different things from, you know, molecular level all the way to a system level or even to a public health level, so how to accommodate different needs from a student. And we do have a very diverse and talented student population here as well. 

So, you know, some of them are more into Bioinformatics, which is about DNA level, DNA chips, how to interact with the genomic data and such. We also have people who are into operational informatics, talking about how we actually execute projects in the hospital. And we also have students who are into entrepreneurship, you know, wanting to take their idea into the next level. 

So, I think the capstone project is a good way for them to, after they go through the various courses that we offer, really in different fields, they can pick one that I think really fit into their best interest and what they really want to do after graduation and match that idea or that desire with our industry and scientific sponsors to do a project that’s in their best interest. And that really can be a good showcase that even after graduation while they were doing job interviews, they can say I’ve done this capstone projects in certain fields with a much deeper dive details they can share with their employers.


Dan: In the years that you’ve been doing this, is there one particular capstone project that really stands out in your mind or if not, can you just give us maybe a couple of examples of what students have focused their energy on?


Kai: I can’t really name one that’s most impressive, because they are quite a few that really are impressive. But for example, we have oncology fellows that’s currently in our medical center, who joined our program, presents something about precision medicine that he’s doing in the oncology field to making sure that, you know, how do we optimize the treatment for oncology patients. 

We also have students who want to take his idea into entrepreneurship. So, he has some project was talking about when patients were discharged from the hospital, how do we make sure this patient still follow up and making sure they get the right resources after discharge? Because we don’t really consider now health care as episodic treatment thing that when people get sick, they come to us when they are gone, which is a way until they show up again. We want to actively reaching out and engage them. So, his capstone project and his idea was all about how do we engage them after discharge and making sure they have proper follow up resources to go by? And there are many more, it may be simple too. 

But I just want to say one word that I think capstone project, it’s just a good way to really put together everything they have learned through our program and align that with their particular interest.


Dan: You know, there’s a lot of people listening to this and I’m sure that many of them are interested in this sort of program. What would you say to those people about what they should do as a next step in determining if this is something that they should do and if this is something that they should apply for?


Kai: Yeah, I would say that if you are someone who is really interested in improving healthcare, and there are many ways you can improve healthcare through you know, different domain. But if you are really into how we can leverage technology and implement this in a healthcare system in your fresh way, there’s really a lot of opportunity here in this program for you. 

And I also, want to mark one thing that, you know, there’s a lot of new technology that’s out there, they are not always doing the thing we want them to do and sometimes, it can even be harmful for patients. So, we need more people to really think from both, not just as a healthcare provider, but also think for as a patient perspective, because we are all patients. 

So, think from your perspective. What would the ideal healthcare system look like? And how I can really sort of help to actually make it to the ideal world that I’m thinking of? And if you think informatics solutions are something you’re really interested in solving their bigger questions, then I think you are candidates for our program, because that’s who we want to train. 

We want people to be the thought leaders in different fields after they graduate. Whether they are in different roles in healthcare, they can be pharmacy nutritionists, they can be executive leaders who doesn’t have any clinical backgrounds. But regardless, we want these people to have informatics mindset to think through these decisions and making sure the system we created is something that’s user friendly to our patients, is something that really driving efficiency and quality of the care.


Dan: And Sam, how about you, if you had to sort of summarize what this kind of program offers to someone who comes from, say, a technical background, as well as someone who might come from a healthcare background, how does a program like this really help professionals develop the skills to make a difference in healthcare?


Sam: So, for folks that are in healthcare, it really allows them to pursue more data science focus careers in the hospital. So, that could be somebody that moves more into supporting the electronic health record. It could be somebody that moves more into clinical informatics or doing research using data in the hospital. And we’ve seen many examples now of students that have wanted to move into those areas and then use this degree as a way to get more experience and to then successfully move into those career paths. 

For those that are not already in healthcare, it allows students to either move up in their own company into areas that are more healthcare focused. But we’ve also seen many students leave their current positions that were less healthcare focused and move into new industries that are more focused on healthcare and health informatics. So, we’ve seen students really leverage their degree in a very positive way. And we’re increasing the healthcare informatics workforce, which was the whole goal when we started this program.


Dan: Of course, listeners can go directly to your website to find out more. They can do that by looking for the direct link in the show notes of this coffee talk. You can also go to and you’ll be taken directly to the University of Chicago page from there. 

Now, University of Chicago is a big school, but your program’s looking to admit 50 students for Autumn 2020. From what I understand, the largest intake to date was 40 students, keeping the class size around 25 students. Can you speak more to that?


Sam: we cap that for a good reason. We don’t want to try to exceed our ability to give the students the right kind of individual attention they need. We certainly get far more applicants than we accept. But keeping the numbers relatively stable has been important so that we can continue to offer the high quality education that we’ve been doing.


Dan: Well, Sam and Kai, thank you very much for all that you’re doing to train and prepare the next generation of healthcare leaders and also for taking time to share what you’re doing with our audience. I really can’t wait to hear about the next class that joins in September. And please do keep us posted. We’re happy to spread the word about the success of your students and graduates. 

That’s the end of our coffee talk with Dr. Sam Volchenboum, and Dr. Cheng-Kai Kao of the University of Chicago. And that’s all for me for now. Thanks for tuning in and until next time, keep on innovating.