Health Information Science program kicks off with symposium

In September 2011, FIMS launched its new Health Information Science (HIS) graduate program, which is jointly offered by FIMS and the Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS).  To kick off the year, a symposium was held, bringing together graduate students and faculty and serving as a bridge to an increasingly important and emerging field of study.

Organized by HIS Program Coordinator Nadine Wathen, and FHS faculty member Anita Kothari, the symposium took place on Friday, September 16 and featured guest speakers Dr. Gordon Guyatt, Dr. Diane Finegood, knowledge translation expert Jacqueline Tetroe and CTV journalist Avis Favaro.

“A symposium to launch the program not only seemed like a great idea to introduce our own students to this emerging field, and some current `hot` issues within it, but also to bring together a larger number of graduate and post-graduate students and faculty from across campus who have an interest in this area,” explained Wathen.

The ‘hot’ issues to which Wathen refers are the reason why now is an ideal time to embark on the unique path of study that Health Information Science will foster.  Wathen explained that the concept of “information overload” is an ever-increasing phenomenon, and particularly evident in the health sector.

“Patients, health care providers, policy makers – all are bombarded daily with data, advice, anecdotes and speculation about ‘best practices’ for health,” she said.

“I think we can understand why a specialization at the intersection of Health Sciences and Information Studies will fill an important educational gap and produce researchers with valuable skills in relation to knowledge translation and mobilization for health care delivery, policy and planning, and cutting-edge scholarship in these areas.”

With health care providers expected to make sound, evidenced-based decisions, Wathen sees a growing need for research-based knowledge.  And the crossover between FIMS and FHS allows for an interdisciplinary approach to multi-faceted issues.  This is one reason why the inaugural symposium featured not only experts from different areas of health and information sciences, but also from journalism.

“Coming from FIMS, I certainly think that the role of journalists and the media in framing health ‘knowledge’ and making health care policies and practices visible and sensible to the public is absolutely crucial, and we need to take this kind of interdisciplinary approach to some of the problems in our health system to have any chance of solving them,” said Wathen.

Sherry Coulson, HIS PhD candidate, felt she benefited from the different expertise presented at the Symposium.  As a student she has read extensively the work of the speakers who represent the evidence-based medicine and knowledge translation fields.  But hearing the perspective of a working health journalist was also helpful for her.

“Avis Favaro's talk on health journalism surprised me.  I guess I approached the talk with certain assumptions about the quality and rigour of reporting of health research in the media that were challenged by Ms. Favaro. I appreciated her honesty regarding editorial decisions about what is reported and what isn't - something most people know but that isn't necessarily transparent in the media,” said Coulson.

Coulson also mentioned that the opportunity to meet and interact with other students and colleagues from FIMS, FHS and beyond was appreciated, and that the symposium helped to spark some excitement in the new HIS students.

“I think that it created a lot of positive energy and got people talking about the natural synergy between health and information research.  Personally, I left the day with a ton of ideas and several new contacts that could lead to future collaborations.