As a pediatrician in the early 2000s, Dr. Bimal Desai '91 stumbled across a problem he wanted to solve: the most common cause of medical errors in pediatrics is incorrect medication dosing. A simple error like confusing pounds and kilograms or mistyping a decimal point could lead to a massive dosing error. "The right dose for a 12-year-old could seriously harm an infant," he noted.
In his position at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Desai was working with a team of technologists on the hospital computer system. Simply re-designing and error-proofing the computer screens that doctors were using to enter their prescriptions helped to reduce potential dosage errors, he found. “The project was successful, and convinced me that many of the thorny problems we faced in medicine could be addressed through the thoughtful application of user-centered technology.”
That 2004 project led Desai to his specialty in health informatics. “I was always a math and science nerd,” says Desai. “But I had no formal computer programming courses in high school or college. I took AP Bio with Bobbie Hinson, (and) AP Calculus with Jeff Lucia, both of whom are amazing teachers and really embody the PD spirit.”
Following his PD graduation in 1991, Desai attended Emory University as a Woodruff Scholar before spending a post-baccalaureate year at St. Andrews University in Scotland as a Jones Scholar and then medical school at Washington University in St. Louis. “I then came to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for my pediatric residency in 2000,” says Desai. “I have been here ever since.”
The current Assistant Vice President and Chief Health Informatics Officer, Desai’s roles at the hospital have changed over the years. “I wanted to learn more about this field representing the intersection of healthcare and technology,” says Desai of his interest in informatics. Desai took on the challenge of being a full-time doctor and full-time student, enrolling in a distance master’s degree program in Biomedical Informatics at Oregon Health and Sciences University. From there, his interest only grew.
“After a few years as a junior attending and informaticist, I was asked to become the medical director of our electronic health record project. In 2011, I was appointed the first Chief Medical Information Officer for the health system,” he said. “In 2014, I participated in the DreamIt Health startup accelerator and co-founded a healthcare data science company called Haystack Informatics.” Haystack Informatics uses patients’ electronic health records and health care employees’ patterns of behavior to protect patient privacy. Earlier this year, Haystack was acquired by Iatric Systems, one of the largest vendors in the healthcare IT space.
Desai has continued his work on integrating technology at the children’s hospital. “For me, the appeal of clinical informatics is that it taps into both the creative and the analytical sides of my brain. Every day is like a new puzzle, requiring my team to challenge our assumptions about health care delivery, to analyze and understand complex clinical work, and to envision elegant technical solutions.”
With his Informatics team, Desai partnered with infectious disease specialists and data scientists to suggest the most appropriate antibiotics. “We’re currently building web-based tools to help geneticists characterize and diagnose children with suspected inherited disorders,” he said. “We have implemented tools to help identify which children are at highest risk for bacterial sepsis, a rare but potentially fatal infection that's easy to miss. We have even built tools to monitor the performance of these alerting systems, to make sure they are tuned properly and that we’re not contributing to ’alert fatigue’ each time a healthcare provider sees an alert in the system.”
In 2017, Desai was honored at the Philadelphia Alliance for Capital and Technologies annual gala and was given the Healthcare Innovator Award in recognition for Desai’s creation of the Hospital’s new Digital Health Program. This program utilizes technology to enhance medical treatment, which includes enabling clinicians to connect with patients through telemedicine, building smartphone applications to help families navigate the healthcare experience, and connecting physicians to healthcare providers outside of the children’s hospital’s network.
“To me, innovation is about drawing connections between disparate fields,” says Desai. “It’s the recognition that a solution in one domain might also work in another, unrelated domain. The field of informatics has many examples of this style of thinking. We look at complex healthcare tasks from the lenses of human-computer interaction, cognitive science, design thinking, and data science; finding better ways to deliver healthcare as a result...your education cannot stop when you finish school. The best way to understand a new technology or concept is to try it for yourself. It’s amazing what you can teach yourself with an open mind and an internet connection. So, in summary: be a perpetual student.”
Today, Desai spends 20 percent of his time in clinical practice as a general pediatrician and faculty member in the school of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and 80 percent as Chief Health Informatics Officer, overseeing the Clinical Informatics and Digital Health programs at the hospital.
He met his wife Naomi Balamuth, a Philadelphia native and pediatric oncologist who specializes in treating children with bone and solid tumors, during their residencies at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The couple’s twins, Sam and Mauli, are now in fourth grade.
When not working or spending time with his family, Desai can be found fulfilling his love for cycling and photography. “I also sing and play drums in a band with a bunch of dads in the neighborhood,” Desai adds. “We can never agree on a name for the band, but my current vote is for “Color Me Dadd”. And if you get that reference, you’re probably as old as I am!”
Follow Dr. Bimal Desai '91 on Twitter at @origamidoc.