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VOL. 128 | NO. 244 | Monday, December 16, 2013

UTHSC Taps Davis to Lead Biomedical Informatics

By Michael Waddell

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Dr. Robert L. Davis has been appointed as the founding director of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s Center in Biomedical Informatics and the University of Tennessee-Oak Ridge National Laboratory Governor’s Chair in Biomedical Informatics.


Davis is the 14th Governor’s Chair appointed in the University of Tennessee system, and he will also serve as a professor in the UTHSC Department of Pediatrics.

“I’ve always been intrigued by the idea that public health can be used to improve health care on a much greater scale than working as a general pediatrician, so I’ve always been oriented towards public health,” Davis said. “There are the issues of childhood vaccinations, clean water, clean air and safe food that have really made the most demonstrable improvements in the health for children and the population at large.”

Davis brings more than two decades of public health, epidemiology and data management experience to UTHSC. He previously worked as director of the Center for Health Research Southeast with Kaiser Permanente Georgia since 2007. He also served as an affiliate faculty member at the Rollins School of Public Health in Atlanta in the Department of Epidemiology since 2007 and as affiliate faculty for the University of Washington School of Public Health in the Department of Epidemiology since 2006.

After he began his career, Davis became involved in practicing public health by using very large data sets that were coming into play in the early 1990s. The data sets covered 3 percent to 4 percent of the U.S. population.

“We were able to use these data sets to reassure the population that certain vaccinations were safe and effective. We were involved very early on with questions of thimerosal exposure and risk for childhood developmental delays and autism,” Davis said. “I think the (Food and Drug Administration), being in charge of drug safety and patient safety, really understood the advances we were making with our ability to do surveillance for vaccine safety, and they adopted the same approach and have markedly expanded the data sets that are available. A major part of the FDA mandate right now is to develop better and better systems to address these questions about medication safety.”

In his new position, Davis will focus on major initiatives that include developing a premier program in biomedical informatics in partnership with faculty at UTHSC and Oak Ridge National Laboratory; serving as supervisor of the research component of the Center of Biomedical Informatics via development of research programs and research recruitments; building collaborative relationships with clinicians and researchers who are interested and have the skill set to do research in biomedical informatics; providing guidance and oversight of the research activities in the center; and developing educational programs for campus faculty in the area of informatics as applied to a wide range of research disciplines, including clinical research, health services research, epidemiology and patient-centered outcomes research.

The amount and complexity of the data used for his research has advanced exponentially over the past 15 years.

“There’s a phenomenal opportunity here because the data that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the FDA uses has grown from covering 9 million people to spanning well more than 100 million people. We are getting close to being able to do public health surveillance on one-third of the U.S. population, using the data that is routinely collected for their health care delivery to assess both expected and unexpected impacts of medications and vaccines,” Davis said.

Davis believes the study of “big data,” or large-scale analytics, will definitely continue to grow in the future, and he hopes to leverage the expertise at UTHSC and Oak Ridge to further that initiative.

“Many of the diseases we are studying today are a combination of genetics, environmental exposures, life experiences and prenatal exposures, and research involves an extraordinary amount of complex data. These studies have a tremendous amount of clinical and public health importance, and that’s why the new center here is about to be so vital,” Davis said.

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