OHSU To Award Its First PH.D. In Biomedical Informatics

04/01/11  Portland, Ore.

Conferral of the degree marks a key milestone for the university as it continues to build a national reputation in an interdisciplinary field offering a key to better health care outcomes.

When a doctor of philosophy’s sapphire and blue-trimmed hood is cloaked on Adam Wright’s shoulders at the Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine hooding ceremony on June 8, it will mark a rite of passage not only for Wright but for the OHSU Department of Medical Informatics and Clinical Epidemiology (DMICE).

Wright will be awarded OHSU’s first Ph.D. in biomedical informatics, the interdisciplinary field that integrates the structure, acquisition, use and analysis of health and biomedical data and is playing an increasingly significant role in health care and biomedical research.

Wright – who after graduation will join the faculty of the Harvard Medical School, where he was a visiting research fellow last summer – also will be honored with the 2007 John Resko Award for the year’s outstanding doctoral dissertation by a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Medicine. He has been selected to be the 2007 Graduate Student Speaker at the hooding ceremony and he plans in his remarks to urge his fellow medical school graduates to use the education they have received at OHSU for the benefit of society at large. Degrees will be conferred later that day at the OHSU commencement.

Informatics education was first offered at OHSU in 1992 when the National Library of Medicine of the National Institutes of Health bestowed on the university the first of its informatics training grants. A formal master’s degree program was launched in 1996, the Ph.D. program in 2003. Information technology systems in the years since OHSU’s first informatics training grant have mushroomed into an increasingly critical component not only of the nation’s health care system but also its biomedical research enterprise.

DMICE has been a pioneer in the rapidly evolving field and, under the leadership of William Hersh, M.D., the department’s chairman, OHSU has grown into one of the nation’s most respected informatics academic programs. DMICE recently accepted its 500th student. More than 200 students were enrolled this year alone both on the OHSU campus and in the department’s popular distance-learning program. Ten other biomedical informatics Ph.D. candidates at OHSU expect over time to follow in Wright’s footsteps.

Wright – a 25-year-old wunderkind who started his own information technology consulting business when he was 14 and worked summers in college as an Intel Corp. engineer – assisted last year in developing for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) a national action plan, or road map, for embedding information about medical best practices in a nationwide electronic health information network. He also worked on that effort as a visiting scholar in 2005 in HHS’s Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology in Washington, D.C.

A nationwide health information network, it is widely believed, would improve clinical decisions and thereby reduce medical errors and improve healthcare quality. Wright’s prize-winning dissertation addressed one of the roadblocks in the path of such a network-the snail’s pace at which electronic clinical decision support systems are being put into service, beyond the major academic medical centers and large integrated providers where they are now concentrated, at community hospitals and small independent providers.

"The natural solution to closing this gap," Wright asserts, "seems to be content sharing-having the successful sites share their content with the rest of the hospitals and providers." In a bid to facilitate that, Wright built a prototype system, which he described in his dissertation, introducing an approach that makes the sharing of decision support content much simpler and less of a cost burden. The dissertation title is: "SANDS: A Service-oriented Architecture for Clinical Decision Support in a National Health Information Network."

Wright is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Stanford University where he maintained a perfect 4.0 grade point average and earned a B.S. degree with distinction in mathematical and computational science. He was a National Merit Scholar and a member of the Lakeridge High School (Lake Oswego, Ore.) Science Bowl team, which won the 1999 Northwest regional championship. Born in Berkeley, Calif., and raised in Lake Oswego, he is the son of Hal and Diane Wright of Lake Oswego. Metricare Corp., the one-man consulting company Wright started as a teenager, now has more than a dozen major healthcare and technology firms and agencies as clients.

OHSU’s first formal informatics degree program, the master of science in medical informatics, was launched in 1996. An online graduate certificate program followed in 2000 and a non-thesis master’s in biomedical informatics in 2001. OHSU will have awarded through this year’s commencement ceremonies, in addition to Wright’s Ph.D., a total of 171 informatics degrees and graduate certificates, including 56 master’s degrees in medical informatics, 42 master’s in biomedical informatics, and 73 graduate certificates. 

The study of biomedical informatics prepares people for a range of careers from the development and management of health services and medical records systems to the analysis of megasets of genomic research and clinical trials data to speed development and delivery of more effective treatments and drugs. This year the DMICE curriculum was divided into two tracks, with medical informatics emphasizing clinical and patient outcome applications and bioinformatics focusing on computational biology applications in biomedical research, particularly molecular biology.


Oregon Health & Science University is the state’s only health and research university, and its only academic health center. OHSU is Portland’s largest employers and the fourth largest in Oregon (excluding government) with more than 12,000 employees. It serves more than 184,000 patients, and is a conduit for learning for more than 3.900 students and trainees. OHSU is the source of more than 200 community outreach programs that bring health and education services to each county in the state.

Event schedule:

9:30 a.m. – OHSU School of Medicine hooding ceremony, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1000 S.W. Broadway, Portland, Ore. 

5:00 p.m. – OHSU commencement, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall