Ritu Agarwal Gives Distinguished Scholar-Teacher Lecture
Medicine has made huge leaps in the past 50 years, to the great benefit of
human beings. “The advances in medical technology in the past 50 years supersede
any made in the previous two millennia. A hospital today is virtually like a lab
at IBM because of all the technology it holds,” said Ritu Agarwal, Dean’s Chair
of Information Systems and director of the Center for Health Information and
Decision Systems (CHIDS) at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School
of Business. But for all the striking and remarkable advances in the lab and
operating room, the back offices of doctor’s offices—the place where patient
information is kept—still looks much like it did in 1950.
That was the subject of “Bits, Bytes and Potions: the Digital Future of
Health and Medicine,” Agarwal’s 2011 Distinguished Scholar-Teacher Lecture on
Nov 2, 2011. The University of Maryland’s Distinguished Scholar-Teacher award
honors faculty who personify the university image of the professorate by virtue
of their outstanding scholarly accomplishments and excellence in teaching.
Agarwal is the 14th Smith professor to be so honored.
Agarwal studied information technology as a graduate student but her passion
was that of a social scientist. “Technology is just a tool, an artifact,” she
said. “How it propels change is the important question. How do we understand the
interplay between very advanced technologies and the structures that can impede
For Agarwal, healthcare IT fascinated for just those reasons. She founded
CHIDS with Smith School Dean Anand Anandalingam (then a fellow professor) to
study this convergence between the two greatest forces of the modern era—the
advent of digital technology and the great advances in medicine. Agarwal
believes IT has the potential to move information through the healthcare system
more quickly and more effectively, preventing deaths due to medical error,
improving diagnoses and reducing healthcare costs across the system.
But to do that, there are “unique and peculiar” systemic barriers that must
be overcome before we can expect to see healthcare IT widely assimilated, says
Agarwal. Hospitals, doctors’ offices and many ancillary healthcare providers all
use differing computer systems that don’t talk to each other. Usability is an
issue—there are thousands of healthcare professionals who would need to learn to
use these applications. Then there is the trouble with insuring the privacy of
patient medical information.
Examining these puzzles with both passion and precision has marked Agarwal’s
long and productive research career. In addition to her work with CHIDS, Agarwal
is leading a university-wide initiative to study the healthcare system with
Maryland faculty across many disciplines. Her work has influenced her students,
many other scholars, but also policy-makers in Congress.
The problems of the future—the movement from disease-centric to
patient-centric care, extremely personalized care based on individual genotype,
continuous rather than episodic care—are some of the exciting puzzles on
Agarwal’s research horizon for the future.
For more information about Agarwal, visit the CHIDS website at:
Check back soon for video
of her lecture.
Rebecca Winner, Office of Marketing Communications