DBMI History

Our department arose from the Center for Medical Informatics, formed by the College of Physicians and Surgeons and Presbyterian Hospital in 1987. The Center became a formal department and began training graduate students in 1994, making it the second oldest such department in the country.

Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) first entered the informatics age under the leadership of William A. Bauman, MD, from the 1960s through the 1980s. In 1983, Robert I. Levy, MD, former head of NHLBI and a recognized leader in lipid metabolism research, joined the CUMC’s dean’s office. Convinced of the value of information technology in health care, Dr. Levy participated in congressional hearings on the National Library of Medicine Integrated Academic Information Management System (IAIMS) initiative and brought that initiative to Columbia.

Rachael K. Anderson, MLS, director of the health sciences library, led the IAIMS planning and prototyping projects. In 1987, based on the success of those projects, Dr. Henrik Bendixen, Vice President of the health sciences campus, and Dr. Thomas Q. Morris, President of the Presbyterian Hospital, created a unique unit, initially known as the Center for Medical Informatics. They recruited a well-known leader in the field, Paul D. Clayton, PhD, who had helped to develop the highly regarded and innovative clinical systems at LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City. Dr. Clayton was named Director of the new center, Professor in the Department of Medicine (and later, the Department of Radiology), and Director of Clinical Information Services at Presbyterian Hospital.

Dr. Clayton quickly recruited a talented staff of faculty and postdocs from Columbia and surrounding universities. Armed with a diagram of a state-of-the-art clinical information system, Dr. Clayton raised awareness and built enthusiasm for integrated information systems. In 1988, the team obtained a $3.8 million IAMIS implementation grant and a $10 million deal with IBM to build such a system. The system went live in 1989, incorporating a flexible clinical data repository, a knowledge-based terminology, and an automated decision-support system. In 1995, the system won the inaugural Nicholas E. Davies Award.

The academic unit flourished. Its early research areas were information architecture, automated decision support including the Arden Syntax, knowledge-based terminologies, natural language processing, data modeling, health information standards including HL7, security, and education. The center obtained a National Library of Medicine training grant for postdocs in 1992, and it received approval for a graduate degree program in 1994. The center became a full department in the College of Physicians and Surgeons later in 1994. The department grew the graduate program, put natural language processing into routine use, created the first large-scale Web-based clinical information system, began working on health information exchange, and recruited a bioinformatician jointly with the Columbia Genome Center.

In 1998, Dr. Clayton returned to Utah, and Edward H. Shortliffe, MD, PhD, was recruited to chair the department in 2000 with appointments in medical informatics, medicine, and computer science. Dr. Shortliffe expanded the department’s faculty and graduate program, overhauled the informatics curriculum, and created initiatives in public health informatics and in cognition and human factors. In collaboration with the Columbia Genome Center and the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics, Dr. Shortliffe helped create the Center for Computational Biology and Bioinformatics (C2B2), directed jointly by biochemist Dr. Barry Honig and Dr. Andrea Califano, a newly recruited member of the informatics department. To reflect the expansion of the department’s research into new areas, Dr. Shortliffe renamed the department Biomedical Informatics in 2003.

Dr. Shortliffe stepped down as chair in 2007, and George Hripcsak, MD, MS, was appointed as the new chair, Vivian Beaumont Allen Professor of Biomedical Informatics, and Director of Medical Informatics Services. Dr. Hripcsak focused on the recruitment of junior faculty, expanding research in translational bioinformatics and clinical informatics, creating campus-wide initiatives in personalized medicine and health practice research, strengthening ties with New York-Presbyterian Hospital, and ensuring financial stability.

The department participates in the ambulatory electronic health record rollout for Columbia University’s Faculty Practice Organization. The Columbia University Medical Center chief information officer and the Faculty Practice Organization chief medical officer are both faculty members of the department. Departmental faculty lead the informatics core of Columbia University’s CTSA (Clinical and Translational Science Award).