November 17, 2020

Kevin Johnson and Reed Omary want to put a podcast in your ear

Faculty members’ podcasts focus on biomedical informatics and future design of health care

VUMC’s podcast, DNA Discoveries in Action, has produced a successful first season of 10 episodes and in the process has become one of the most popular new podcasts about science in the country.

Two senior faculty members at Vanderbilt have also been producing podcasts of their own: Kevin Johnson, MD, MS, the Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair in Biomedical Informatics, professor of Pediatrics and informatician-in-chief at VUMC, is the creator behind “Informatics in the Round,” a podcast devoted to topics of general interest in biomedical informatics, while Reed Omary, MD, MS, the Carol D. and Henry P. Pendergrass Professor of Radiology and chair of the Department of Radiology and Radiological Sciences, hosts “Innovation Activists,” which is focused on the future design of health care.

Kevin Johnson, MD

As previously reported, Sayeh Nikpay, PhD, MPH, assistant professor of Health Policy, has also entered podcasting, as one of three co-hosts of “Tradeoffs,” a show devoted to “exploring our confusing, costly, and often counterintuitive health care system.” The show is produced at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

Johnson and Omary say that their podcasts are designed to appeal to a general audience, and the two faculty leaders set editorial policies for their respective shows, plan episodes, book guests, lead each show and edit audio tracks.

Since its launch in January 2018, Omary’s “Innovation Activists” has logged 16 episodes devoted to how health care might be improved using principles of good design. The producer is Krystyna Barnard, a senior communications specialist with Radiology and Radiological Sciences.

For a recent episode, Johnson was Omary’s guest for a discussion of informatics and health care innovation. Other recent topics for the podcast have included health care architecture, with guest Andrew Ibrahim, MD, from HOK, a global design and architecture firm; and fostering innovation in academia, with guest Kevin Ward, MD, from the University of Michigan’s Center for Integrative Research in Critical Care.

Reed A. Omary, MD

“Podcasts offer another channel for communication, an opportunity to connect with others. It’s fun to learn together about innovation and share perspectives on how to improve the design of health care,” Omary said.

“Design refers to intentionally meeting the needs of a user. Design starts with empathy, trying to understand the needs of those whom we’re trying to serve.”

Omary sees ample opportunity for innovation in health care.

“Traditionally, health care has not been designed to benefit patients or clinicians. It’s been designed to benefit health care systems.

“Electronic medical record systems were advanced with the best of intentions: to streamline and improve care. In practice, these systems have become an incredible source of frustration for clinicians because they’re not designed with their needs in mind — they were designed to ensure appropriate billing.

“It’s an example of how we have competing interests in health care that can lead to inefficiency, frustration and sometimes poor health care outcomes.”

“We’re trying to cover biomedical informatics in a format that is accessible to non-informaticians.”

As the world’s computing capacity has grown, the field of biomedical informatics has come to broadly influence the direction and future hopes of biomedicine. Johnson, who leads one of his discipline’s top academic programs, wants to open discussion of informatics to everyone.

“Biomedical informatics is a science that connects the dots between data and medicine, whether those data concern diseases, health care processes or human biology in the form of genomics and proteomics,” he said.

“Informatics in the Round” has logged nine episodes since its launch last December. Recent episodes have been devoted to anti-black racism, precision medicine and COVID-19, all viewed through the lens of informatics.

Recent guests have included Patricia Brennan, RN, PhD, director of the National Library of Medicine, and Josh Denny, MD, MS, adjunct professor of Biomedical Informatics at VUMC and chief executive officer of All of Us, the federal government’s massive precision medicine research program.

“It’s really gratifying to hear feedback where someone appreciates the guest and they’re able to take some of the learnings and change their own behavior.”

“We’re trying to cover biomedical informatics in a format that is accessible to non-informaticians,” Johnson said. In addition to featuring other experts in the field in every episode, he invites people without any background in informatics to participate as guests, helping to keep the tone of the show appropriately balanced.

“It’s as if we were all sitting at a bar,” Johnson said. “It’s a roundtable format with at least one guest in the lay person role and one guest in the comedian role.” Johnson happens to know quite a few Nashville songwriters, and several have appeared as guests on the show.

He sees podcasting as a nimble, democratizing platform. “It supports distributed approaches to collecting information — worldwide special guests, no travel — they don’t even have to leave their house. And it’s very easy to put together an episode once a month.”

The response Johnson has received from listeners via social media has been “incredibly encouraging, to a person,” he said.

Omary also enjoys listener responses. “We try to end the podcast with what we call a call to action,” he said. “And it’s really gratifying to hear feedback where someone appreciates the guest and they’re able to take some of the learnings and change their own behavior. That might be to have a conversation with someone, it might be to go to some website for more information, it might be to introduce themselves to a new person — that kind of stuff.”

According to Edison Research, 37% of Americans age 12 and over listen to podcasts on at least a monthly basis. Last year Forbes reported there were more than 800,000 active podcasts and over 54 million episodes available worldwide.

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