New Center Harnesses Big Data, Technology for Better Dentistry

Thursday, January 19, 2017

To prepare for the rapid changes in the health care environment in the coming decades, the College of Dental Medicine has created the Center for Bioinformatics and Data Analytics in Oral Health to harness the power of data to inform patient-centered dental care.

In September, Dean Christian S. Stohler, DMD, DrMedDent, announced the recruitment of Dr. Joseph Finkelstein as associate professor of health informatics in dentistry to co-found and direct our new center. Joseph V. Errante, DDS, senior associate dean for clinical services, will be co-director. Dr. Errante joined the school in early 2016 to lead change management efforts to improve clinical performance in health care outcomes, compliance, and finance.

“The data we will gather from the new operatories planned to open on VC-5 in 2017 are unprecedented and extremely exciting,” says Dr. Stohler. “For example, we can track how care is delivered, how patients respond, and patient and provider stress levels during treatment. Under the leadership of Drs. Finkelstein and Errante, this new center will transform that data into information to inform teaching and clinical practice and offer tremendous new research opportunities.”

Dr. Finkelstein focuses on the development and implementation of innovative technologies that support personalized care.  “I really wanted to be part of the College of Dental Medicine because it has a long tradition at the forefront of dental informatics,” says Dr. Finkelstein, noting in particular the 1991 publication by then Columbia faculty member John Zimmerman, DDS, of Dental Informatics, an important early text on oral health informatics.  

A hub of research and education, the center will focus on individualized patient care as well as patient satisfaction. “Healthcare costs have been spiraling to unsustainable levels with estimates of 30 percent of the costs attributed to waste and errors,” explains Joe Errante, DDS. “This requires more knowledge of and precision with therapies that produce outcomes predictably.” Dr. Errante’s experience as a clinician and entrepreneur—he has built, operated, and sold leading dental benefit businesses, large dental group practices, and niche healthcare delivery systems—gives him unique insight into the problems facing healthcare systems and practical solutions to address them.

For example, the creation of interactive tools, including surveys before and after visits,will allow patients to be more effectively engaged in their oral health care. Passive data collection tools like a patient wait-time tracker will allow providers to assess the efficiency of resources for care delivery. The utilization of emerging technologies will offer opportunities to improve payment structures in systems of oral health care.

This interdisciplinary work will rely on contributions from a number of collaborators. “Part of the goal of the center is to use data analytics to better understand the interconnections between oral health and systemic diseases, so we will engage specialty medical providers as collaborators in this analysis,” says Dr. Finkelstein. “This will truly be a collaborative endeavor with partners including the schools of public health, engineering, business, social work, and more.”

In addition to offering educational programs—new degrees and fellowships in dental informatics may be on the horizon—the center will facilitate the expansion of the school’s research portfolio in data sciences and precision medicine. The development, collection, and analysis of extensive data from sources such as the forthcoming clinical center for digital dentistry and simulation learning—a high tech clinic space featuring 48 operatories scheduled for this year—will advance evidence-based scholarship in oral health informatics and also support faculty and clinical activities.                              

“This center will allow faculty from the college and beyond to utilize tremendous resources and implement them in a learning health care delivery environment,” explains Dr. Finkelstein. “In a learning health care system, research influences practice and practice influences research. This will establish a continuous cycle of care improvement that prioritizes each individual patient.”