Computer Science and Its Relationship With AMIA and Informatics
Although informatics is often viewed externally as a new discipline, the field has a rich history that dates back at least to the 1960s, with a well-known seminal paper appearing even earlier.1 AMIA itself was created in the late 1980s when three separate informatics organizations, with overlapping interests, saw the value in combining their missions and activities in a single, larger, and more cohesive organization. Those three nonprofit corporate entities (SCAMC: the Symposium on Computer Applications in Medical Care; AAMSI: the American Association for Medical Systems and Informatics; and ACMI: the American College of Medical Informatics) dissolved their own charters and pooled resources to form a new organization that would incorporate the activities of all three. SCAMC became the AMIA Annual Symposium, which we hold every fall, AAMSI became the membership organization, and ACMI was re-created within AMIA as its College of elected Fellows. All three activities continue to thrive to this day, as does our annual spring meeting, which owes its roots to the annual AAMSI meeting, which was held at that time of year.
The world of informatics has changed dramatically since AMIA was formed, and the association has accordingly evolved as well. That evolution requires introspection and decisions—ones that need to reflect our roots and to reaffirm the critical importance of disciplines such as computer science that gave rise to informatics, as well as to embrace change when appropriate. AMIA's roots are firmly planted in academia, corporate research, hospitals, and other clinical practice settings—plus the government agencies (notably the NLM and predecessors to AHRQ) that supported early research in our field. “Hot areas” of today, such as public health informatics and bioinformatics, had not yet taken shape and those labels did not yet exist (although there were, of course, early applications and research projects in both areas). In academia, informatics researchers came from engineering schools and computer science departments, and gradually from medical or nursing schools and the nascent informatics units that began to emerge at a few schools.
In the early years of SCAMC, which held its first meeting in 1977, talks were often technically oriented, since the underlying science was still young and systems for implementation were immature and largely offered by an emerging but small industry. For a few years, in fact, the SCAMC Proceedings (a large two-volume collection of presented papers) was published by a large engineering professional society, the IEEE.i Computer scientists had much to offer to the young and rapidly evolving field, and many of today's senior academic informatics leaders entered the community from a home in computer science, guided by a desire to work on socially important and computationally challenging problems. Graduate students in biomedical informatics continue to learn a great deal of computer science, as is reflected in the core competencies that our Academic Forum has recently defined.ii Although informatics clearly has other core component sciences with which our students need to be familiar (decision science, information science, cognitive science, management science, organizational theory, and the like), computer science is broadly assumed to be a fundamental part of the discipline. Thus, AMIA continues to embrace the role of computer science and needs to serve a computer science community that increasingly finds motivation and challenges in the world of biomedicine and health.2
With the growing heterogeneity of the AMIA membership, and the audience at the Annual Symposium each year, it is an increasing challenge for one meeting to serve the needs of all segments of the organization. It is accordingly not surprising that AMIA's leaders have heard occasional complaints from groups that once felt at home at our meetings but now begin to find it difficult to remain engaged. We first heard such rumblings from some members of the computer science community in late 2009, and I immediately took the concern seriously and wanted to rectify them. My own background is in computer science as well as medicine, and I am fully aware of the key role that computer science has played in the evolution and progress of our field. AMIA accordingly undertook an effort to understand the basis for the concerns that had been expressed and made several changes in 2010 that will continue into 2011 and beyond.
One set of changes has to do with the selection of papers for presentation at our Annual Symposium. We revised the descriptors of paper categories to include more emphasis on methodology, updated and thinned our reviewer database to assure more accurate matching of papers to reviewers, and made it clear that reviewers were expected to give substantive critiques of a paper, especially if they were recommending rejection. We also had a well-attended panel discussion at the 2010 Symposium on the subject of computer science's relationship to informatics and to AMIA. In addition, the 2011 Symposium's Program Committee has greater involvement of computer scientists, especially for the Foundations Track. Limits on the length of papers have been relaxed in order to make it easier for authors to write more substantive papers that lay out their methods in more detail. We are also considering further changes for 2012 and beyond, based on this year's experience. We believe the changes will be positive for all authors—not just for those from the computer science community.
At the same time AMIA has come to recognize that certain communities within our membership are eager to have more narrowly focused meetings sponsored by the organization. The Joint Summits on Translational Science, held in San Francisco each March, have provided a much needed event for focused involvement by members from the translational bioinformatics and clinical research informatics communities. Similarly, this year's spring meeting in Orlando has been designed to focus on the needs of informaticians and practitioners working in the area of public health. We will continue to explore other areas in which focused meetings may be feasible, either created by AMIA alone or in partnership with other organizations that have overlapping interests in a narrowly defined area of informatics research and practice. Such discussions, for example, are underway with organizations that serve the computer science community, although no definite plans can be reported at this time.
Like informatics, computer science is far from static. There was a time when computer science faculty members were criticized if they worked on biomedical problems or their work was viewed as "too applied". Today we are seeing gradual change in those attitudes, as many departments have recruited bioinformatics faculty or clinical informaticians, and the core scope and requirements for computer science are being scrutinized from within.3
My message, then, is that AMIA recognizes that it needs to evolve its offerings and its ways of serving members, especially in light of the broadening of the field and the increasing diversity among our membership. Our diversity is healthy, as informatics has daily influence on the care of patients and the pursuit of biological research, and as we seek to embrace and engage basic researchers, applied researchers, and practitioners, regardless of whether they work in academia, corporations, health systems, or government. As always, we seek your feedback and advice as AMIA and its Board of Directors guide the organization into the years ahead.
- Ledley RS, Lusted LB. Reasoning foundations of medical diagnosis. Science 1959;130:9–21. [FREE Full text]
- Stead WW, Lin HS, eds. Computational Technology for Effective Health Care: Immediate Steps and Strategic Directions. Washington, DC: National Research Council, 2009.
- Snir M. Compouter and information science and engineering: one discipline, many specialties. Commun ACM 2011;54:38–43.