U of T creates big data course for med students

Marcus LawPicture two groups, both eager to work toward a shared goal, but speaking two different languages and with no translators in sight. This has been the challenge for physicians and technology developers, who have been trying to collaborate to improve our healthcare system. To bridge the divide, the University of Toronto has created a course for first-year and second-year medical students that gives them the knowledge they need to talk tech with developers. Computing for Medicine was launched in late February and has received an overwhelming response.

“You have physicians, who understand what they need, but not how the technology works or how to harness it,” explains course developer Professor Marcus Law (pictured), director of Preclerkship Renewal and Academic Innovation at U of T’s Faculty of Medicine.

“On the other side, you have programmers and developers who understand the technology, but not how it can be applied in clinical settings.”

The 61 students range widely in computer literacy. Some have little to no familiarity with programming. Others gained experience through high school or university courses.

Roland S. Xu, a second-year MD student, enrolled with no previous computer training.

“During our medical training, we study the language of medicine to learn how to communicate with members of the medical field and with our patients,” Xu says.

“But with the accelerated progress in science and technology, it’s becoming more evident that doctors need to communicate with machines as well.

“From your friendly neighborhood family doctor interacting with an electronic medical record (EMR) to the clinician-scientists who are trying to make sense of big data, being able to program will allow us to develop more efficient and accurate methods of data analysis. This will hopefully translate into better care for the patient.”

The course, which runs over 14 months, starts with a boot camp in the foundations of coding to bring all students to the same level.

The boot camp is followed by further coding exercises and seminars on how this knowledge can be applied. Students also have the option of completing a summer research project that gives them a chance to put their new computing knowledge to practice in a real medical research lab.

“What’s important about this course isn’t just skills development,” says Law. “It’s teaching students to think in a structured and logical way. That can be applied in a lot of different settings. Coding is already being taught in middle school. We need to ensure that today’s students are as prepared to harness technology as the generations that will follow them.”

Xu is now immersed in the programming boot camp, which he likens to learning a sport. “Understanding the theory isn’t all that difficult, but just like with sports, it takes time and practice to get better,” he says.

He intends to apply his new knowledge to research and data mining.

“The field of basic-science research is changing and the data sets we obtain from our experiments are growing exponentially in size. I want to explore not only new ways to analyze data but also new ways to present the data to facilitate knowledge translation.”

The collaboration with the Faculty of Medicine is the latest in a series of ventures by U of T’s computer science department, which has also worked with the Faculty of Law on Blue Jay Legal.

“While the department of computer science has a long history of cross-university collaborations spanning decades, these collaborations have become increasingly central to our core mission as computation becomes pervasive across disciplines,” said the chair of computer science, Professor Ravin Balakrishnan.

Source: U of T News

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