September 13, 2002

Johnson, new vice chair of Bioinformatics, hopes to spread technology throughout health care

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Dr. Kevin Johnson, newly named vice chair, has a vision for Vanderbilt’s Bioinformatics department — improving its image. (photo by Dana Johnson)

Johnson, new vice chair of Bioinformatics, hopes to spread technology throughout health care

If the new vice chairman of Bioinformatics were to pick a motto for his new squad, you might start seeing T-shirts across campus emblazoned with the slogan: “Biomedical Informatics: It’s not just for computer geeks anymore.”

Dr. Kevin Johnson, who hails from Johns Hopkins (where he was born, earned a medical degree and served as chief resident before becoming faculty), sees a bright future for the growing department. At the top of his to-do list is: publish more about Vanderbilt’s efforts in the realm of biomedical informatics, making it more accessible to everyone in medicine.

“This group has done a lot to bring biomedical informatics to the forefront of health care,” said Johnson, a practicing pediatrician as well as a bioinformatician, “and we are excited to be in a position to talk about our results and their implications at a national level.

“We have a critical mass of people to work on new approaches to managing information.” Vanderbilt, he said, has a reputation of being a leader in the field. WizOrder, which is perhaps the most well-adopted clinician order entry environment, demonstrates creativity and responsiveness to the needs of clinicians and the vision for the way information technology systems ought to be developed, he said. “This has gone way beyond putting software together,” he said. “Drs. Nancy Lorenzi, Bill Stead, and Randy Miller have assembled a whole transformational group here who focus on people and processes, as well as technology.”

Johnson’s reach already has extended beyond the walls of the Eskind Biomedical Library. He has begun to collaborate with Dr. Jim Jirjis, assistant professor of Medicine in the Adult Primary Care Center, Dr. Neal Patel, assistant professor of Pediatrics in Critical Care and Anesthesia, Josh Petersen, a research analyst in Molecular Physiology and Biophysics, and a host of other faculty throughout the medical campus.

“We are extremely fortunate to bring an individual with Kevin Johnson’s talents to Vanderbilt,” said Dr. Randolph Miller, professor and chair of Biomedical Informatics. He also noted the department of Pediatrics, and Dr. Arnold Strauss, professor and chair of that department, were key in Johnson’s recruitment. “Dr. Johnson’s combined clinical skills, informatics background, and leadership abilities will make the growing Department of Biomedical Informatics stronger and benefit Vanderbilt in general.”

Johnson is finishing two projects he started at Hopkins — testing whether hand-held computers are as good as pen and paper for writing prescriptions, and developing tools that help physicians record patient encounters in a “structured reporting” system — and will soon start two others at Vanderbilt — one to look for ways of improving the use of personal digital assistants for order entry, data review and reporting, and another to find ways to improve the adaptation of technology to clinical settings.

As vice chair, he will shepherd growth and development, keeping watch over the growing staff and implementing efficiencies. He’s also an associate professor of Pediatrics and will be on the inpatient attending physician schedule several times a year.

His desire to integrate information technology into health care equals his wish that computer scientists be seen as people who do more than spend free time traveling to Star Trek conventions.

“Most of us have hobbies that have nothing to do with computers,” he says in mock defense — seconds after making a Trekkie reference. “You’ll see Dr. Miller in his sports car, and you can engage Dr. Stead for hours if you ask him about the merits of cooking on a wood-burning stove.”

Johnson’s office is replete with photographs of nature scenes and of his family — most of which he has taken himself. He and his wife, Charlmain (who also is working in the Medical Center) enjoy tennis, raising tropical fish, and playing with their daughter Natalie. As an avid musicologist and a classically trained singer and bass player, Nashville’s music environment pulled on his avocations as much as Vanderbilt’s technology tugged at his day-job persona. He’s hoping to land some studio gigs. In the meantime, he’ll juggle the calendar he keeps on his two or three personal digital assistants, which are almost small enough to slide into a pocket protector.