PIK Professor Kevin Johnson: Informatics evangelist

The Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor with appointments in Penn Engineering and the Perelman School of Medicine on forging his own path in the fields of health care and computer science.

Kevin Johnson is used to forging his own path in the fields of health care and computer science.

If you ask him to locate his niche within these fields, Johnson, the David L. Cohen and Penn Integrates Knowledge (PIK) Professor with appointments in the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Perelman School of Medicine, would say “informatics.” But that doesn’t tell the whole story of the board-certified pediatrician, who has dedicated his career to innovations in how patients’ information is created, documented and shared, all with the goal of improving the quality of health care they receive.

Kevin Johnson
Kevin Johnson, Penn’s 27th Penn Integrates Knowledge University Professor.

Informatics, the study of the structure and behavior of interactions between natural and computational systems, is an umbrella term. Within it, there’s bioinformatics, which applies informatics to biology, and biomedical informatics, which looks at those interactions in the context of health care systems. Finally, there is clinical informatics, which further focuses on the settings where health care is delivered, and where Johnson squarely places himself.

“But you can just call it ‘informatics,’” says Johnson. “It will be easier.”

He mainly studies how computational systems can improve ambulatory care—sometimes known as outpatient care, or the kind of care hospitals give to patients without admitting them—in real time. If you’ve ever heard your doctor complain about the amount of time it takes them to input the information they get from you during your visit, or wondered why they need to capture this information during the visit in the first place, these are some of the questions Johnson is investigating.

“We’re taking care of patients but we’re getting frustrated by things that we thought these new computers should be able to fix,” says Johnson.” I think there’s a very compelling case for using engineering principles to reimagine electronic health records.”

He remembers attending meetings in the early ’90s with other medical professionals and trying to convince them that cellphones, still relatively rare and possessing only basic features, would eventually lead to impactful changes in health care.

Johnson proved to be far ahead of the curve. He saw the potential for powerful, data-gathering devices to wind up in the hands of consumers, and by extension patients, all over the world, several years before the term “smartphone” would be coined.

“I was one of the first people to show how we could use text messaging to help patients change behaviors,” says Johnson. “Most doctors were thinking that these were toy systems and that they were busy enough.”

Almost thirty years later, roughly 85% of the world’s population owns smartphones and texting is part of everyday life. Now, the ability to create and instantaneously share much richer seams of information—audio, video, and data from connected devices—is poised to make an even bigger impact on health care.

Johnson’s modes of ministry extend beyond the academic realm. His ventures also include movie and documentary production, and even “a lively, nontechnical conversation” podcast called “Informatics in the Round.”

“I wanted it to be a podcast that could help my mother understand what I do, so it has to be at a level of a conversation around the kitchen table,” says Johnson. “We include one songwriter, one expert guest, one comedian, and me. The goal is for the three of us to ask questions of the expert at a basic level. The conversation can go in any direction. We had a conversation about precision medicine that evolved into a conversation around international terrorism. It’s great fun getting into some of the concerns and opportunities inherent in the science of informatics.”

This story is by Ebonee Johnson. Read more at Penn Engineering Today.