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Kim Unertl, PhD

Current Affiliation

Assistant Professor, Department of Biomedical Informatics, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, Tenn.


PhD, Biomedical Informatics, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn.
MS, Biomedical Informatics, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn.
BS, Biomedical Engineering, Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wis.

How do I describe my work to those outside the field

It depends on who I’m talking to. I work with a lot of different types of groups. When I’m talking to people within healthcare – clinicians, nurses, physicians, and others who work within the health care system – I usually describe it as research I am doing to try to make health information technology work for you, and help your patients. When I’m talking to community groups or other people outside of healthcare, I’ll usually describe my work as trying to develop technology and computers to improve healthcare, to help you take care of your own health. And then I also often am trying to explain informatics to high school students and to younger kids and so when I’m describing it to them, I ask them to think about the last time that they went to the doctor’s office, and if they have ever thought about, “How does your doctor know that you need a vaccination on this visit? How do they remember that you broke your arm last year?” – those kinds of things. And that usually helps, because kids notice that nurses and doctors are using computers when they’re in an office, but they aren’t really thinking about what goes on behind the scenes. 

Years of experience:

I’ve been in informatics for 12 or 13 years.

Why Informatics?

A few years ago I was working in industry as an engineer and my engineering manager sent me to a class at a diabetes center to understand more about the people who were going to use our technology. As part of that, I had a chance to observe a doctor-patient visit, and it was like a little light bulb went off in my head watching it, because it was really clear that the doctor had information from the patient and from the health record that was critical to figuring out what can the patient do next? How can they take care of their health? Once I got home from that course, I started thinking, there must some graduate degree that focuses on information in healthcare. It’s really that interest in figuring out how to help someone manage their health and how can we get information everywhere where it needs to be, in a format that they can use. That’s really what motivates me in informatics.

What are your ambitions? At the end of your career, what do you hope to have accomplished?

It splits down into two distinct areas. The first is improving the design of health information technology so that technology can become a partner in care. And the second is opening doors into informatics for more people, which is why I am involved in outreach to K-12 schools and to undergraduate students.

Who or what are your “key sources” in the informatics field?

My mentor Nancy Lorenzi and my colleague Laurie Novak. Nancy gives me a long view of informatics and where we stand and where she thinks we are headed. Laurie always has a great grasp of theory from different fields. If I have an idea and I think, “Ah, there must be some existing theory outside of informatics that talks about this idea, Laurie is the person I go to when I have that question. And then, in informatics, there are Joan Ash at OHSU (Oregon Health & Sciences University), Tiffany Veinot (University of Michigan), Suzanne Bakken (Columbia University), Madhu Reddy (Northwestern University) and Katie Siek (Indiana University). I am always looking for new papers by them, and thinking of potential collaborations with them. Beyond people, in terms of journals and other resources, there are JAMIA, Applied Clinical Informatics, and the National Library of Medicine websites – not just PubMed – but there are all sorts of different resources available from the NLM, which I feel as if I am still learning about. And then Twitter. There are actually a lot of informatics people on Twitter. It’s great during the AMIA Annual Symposium, for example, and afterwards, as well. My twitter account is @kimunertlphd.

Articles that spotlight my research interest

Hobbies/Interests outside AMIA

I’m a knitter, which I learned how to do when I was in graduate school, to deal with stress. Knitting is a great way to combine math, thinking about patterns, and working with your hands – and you end up with something warm to wear at the end. I also like hiking and camping with my family, and disconnecting from technology when we are doing that. Our favorite place to camp is Rock Island State Park in Wisconsin – it’s a small island in the middle of Lake Michigan and it’s very remote and rustic.

AMIA is important to me because

I think of AMIA as my professional home where I can network with other people interested in the same kinds of informatics topics that I’m interested in and build connections outside of my university. AMIA brings all of these different places and types of research together in a unique way, and AMIA also does an amazing job of getting the message out about what medical informatics is and the critical roles that it plays in healthcare.

I am involved with AMIA

I’m on the editorial board for JAMIA. I have been a long-time member of the People and Organizational Issues Working Group (POI-WG), and a member of the Diana Forsythe Award Committee, which the POI-WG gives out. I’m also the co-director of the AMIA High School Scholars Program.

It may surprise people to know

I am the youngest of a big family. I have 5 brothers and 3 sisters, and so I had to come up with unique ways to find my voice and express myself in the crowd. I got used to debating my siblings. A lot. I think I carry that forward today. I tend to always try and talk through issues with people. I also jumped out of an airplane on purpose once. It was right before I graduated from my undergraduate university and skydiving seemed like a great idea. It’s fun to look back at it now, but I probably wouldn’t want to do it again.