Dr. Katie Zhu is the medical lead of wellness management and a member of the Healthcare Industry Engagement team in IBM Research. In her four years at IBM, Dr. Zhu has challenged obesity risk factors and questioned the future capabilities of technology in the healthcare industry. Recently the Smarter Planet blog caught up with Dr. Zhu for insight into her work, as well as what attracted her to the corporate world.
Smarter Planet: What got you interested in combining computer science and medicine?
Katie Zhu: Imagine that you are a doctor and you need to understand how past patients coped with a certain condition in order to provide the best treatment plan possible for a current patient. You’ll need a digital patient database. Or maybe you are a surgeon and need ventilators to run on autopilot to control patients’ respiratory parameters. You’ll need innovative technology in the surgery room. With the help of more advanced technologies, physicians can do a lot of things that were once extremely difficult or just impossible. Technology is transforming medicine – I am excited to be a part of this transformation.
SP: Tell us a little about how IBM Research melds medical informatics and computer science.
KZ: Computer scientists and medical practitioners tend to speak their own language: Here at the Department of Healthcare Informatics at IBM Research, we bridge medicine and computer science. My background has allowed me to be a liaison between the two fields. By partnering technology and medicine, our goal is to make better clinical decisions in a more timely and cost-efficient manner
SP: When it comes to the healthcare space, what are you most passionate about?
KZ: There is a lot that still needs to be discovered in the healthcare field. But with nearly three trillion dollars spent on U.S. healthcare each year, I believe healthcare economics is something we could definitely dig deeper into, and specifically consider how information technology can help bring down the cost of healthcare industries. How can analytics predict what might happen down the road? Can this data gauge and calculate healthcare costs? These are the types of questions I want to delve into.
SP: What projects are you working on these days?
KZ: I am currently studying different types of obesity and their risk factors. Obesity comes in different forms – someone who eats a lot but is still slender, or someone who exercises every day but cannot lose the excessive body fat that defines their obesity. We are trying to understand: what factors put patients under higher risk of obesity; is it genetic, based on family history, or certain lifestyles? We need to dig deeper and look at regular hospital records and personal health data and try to find the best way to define obesity and its risk factors. That way we can potentially intervene to prevent the disease.
SP: And what about the future? What projects are on your horizon?
KZ: Sometimes we don’t consider how our surrounding environments affect our livelihood. It would be fascinating to consider how social and environmental variables contribute to health care problems. By engaging patients and their families, we could study to what degree factors like where they live, how they commute, where they buy foods, how convenient it is to access health/fitness facilities, parks, play a role in their health.
Zhu holds a Ph.D in Medical Informatics from Columbia University.