Computer science and medicine may seem like completely unrelated fields at first glance. However, applying computer science methods to health care can bring powerful results.
After mentoring several premeds and medical school students with a computer science background, I see a consistent vision among them: They aspire to be game-changers and bring systemwide improvements to health care. Because of the notion that they can revolutionize health care and create monumental changes in medicine, premeds are increasingly learning computer science and getting involved with projects that leverage these skills.
Many medical students have some computer science background when they arrive at Carle Illinois College of Medicine, which describes itself as the world’s first engineering-based med school.
“The application of computer science into medicine is a revolution,” says Dr. King Li, the medical college’s dean. “The human brain can process three to four variables simultaneously, but with the help of computers, we can collect hundreds – if not thousands – of variables continuously. Take a look at an Apple Watch. Because of computer software, we can collect and assess your heart rate, walking pace, breaths and much more health information all at the same time. Overall, computer science will revolutionize health care by decreasing costs and increasing quality of patient care.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Li saw several computer science applications on campus such as creating mathematical models to understand disease outbreak; building contact-tracing software for students and faculty to use on campus; and increasing the use of telemedicine for patient care.
Premeds can leverage computer science to improve health care in seemingly endless ways. Here are six popular ways:
- Data analysis.
- Computational modeling.
- Digital health.
- Medical decision-making.
- Electronic medical records.
Data analysis. Computer software allows researchers to find patterns and analyze extremely large datasets. Many premeds learn data science and apply it to their projects. Additionally, premeds can learn to program in coding languages like Python and R, which are particularly useful for research.
Computational modeling. Computational modeling in health care can be used to create simulations of complex biological mechanisms and predict outcomes. Popular computational modeling applications in medicine for premeds include tracking infectious diseases, predicting drug side effects and calculating the effects of public health interventions. Most recently, computational models have been applied to COVID-19 outbreak predictions.
Digital health. Several start-up companies and other organizations are building health apps, ranging from chronic disease management to patient scheduling to helping clinicians write their clinical notes. Premeds can join digital health companies or build their own health apps.
Medical decision-making. Physicians and premeds can use computer software and algorithms to help with medical decision-making. For example, based on clinical findings and lab data collected, doctors can be prompted to order additional tests for their patients.
Computer programs can also help triage patients to specific medical treatment pathways, and premeds can help hospitals create algorithms to improve medical decision-making among health care providers.
Electronic medical records. Physicians can use computer science skills to create, implement and improve electronic medical records, commonly called EMRs, in medical clinics. While EMRs are already in use in the U.S., developing countries and underserved communities still need access to digitalized health records. Some premeds have installed and implemented EMR systems in free medical clinics and doctor offices.
Telemedicine. Premeds and physicians can help develop and implement telemedicine platforms. Telemedicine is still an emerging field within medicine, but it has the potential to increase access to care, especially in rural communities. Telemedicine has become increasingly popular during COVID-19, providing easier and additional patient-doctor appointments from the safety of home.
Here are two examples of aspiring physicians who used computer-related knowledge and skills as premeds – and one as a med student now – to advance medicine.
Computer Engineering and Medicine
James Xu, a computer engineering major at Columbia University in New York, has used computer science skills to advance his cancer research and to help establish the digital infrastructure at an oncology clinic.
At Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Xu implemented computational algorithms to identify cancer biomarkers from large-scale datasets, including one that contained more than 50,000 samples of cancer mutations in tumors. Using a statistical algorithm, Xu identified potentially significant oncogenic mutations. The results of these analyses guide cancer researchers in their efforts to develop cancer drugs, especially targeted therapies.
Additionally, Xu programmed data visualization modules to display complex cancer genomics data, which helped researchers analyze results visually and aided physicians in their clinical decisions.
Xu’s familiarity with computer software and hardware also allowed him to lead an oncology clinic’s entire digital infrastructure throughout college. First, he built a HIPAA-compliant technical infrastructure and integrated an electronic medical record and practice management system. Then during the COVID-19 pandemic, he extended the clinic’s telemedicine capabilities.
Through his work at the oncology clinic, Xu learned to work with various stakeholders in the nation’s complex health care system, including patients, physicians, health care companies, software vendors and government agencies. With his background in computer science and future training in medicine, he aspires to develop solutions to build a more equitable and efficient health care system.
Computer Science and Medicine
Sherman Leung majored in computer science at Stanford University and is a med school student at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. His experiences in health tech include several projects where he developed computer software and mobile applications that improve access to health and help patients improve their chronic medical conditions.
What kick-started Leung’s interest in medicine was an undergraduate course that explored why medical claims were repeatedly getting denied. He applied computer science and machine learning techniques to build an algorithm that could identify whether a new claim would be accepted or denied. This algorithm could help patients receive more accurate medical bills and improve operational efficiency within hospital systems.
After graduating from college, Leung pursued jobs at several health tech companies, including Boston-based PatientPing, where his primary role was to help physicians improve follow-up care for their patients after they left the hospital. He built web applications that mapped out where health care providers visited after their patients’ appointments, such as rehab facilities and nursing homes.
Additionally, the program aimed to connect doctors at different hospital systems so that they could collaborate to improve their patients’ health. While building these applications, Sherman worked with and shadowed several doctors, which inspired him to be a physician who works at a systems level to better care for patients. He believes his background uniquely positions him to drive innovation on both the technological side and patient care side of health care.
How to Get Computer Science Skills as a Premed
There are several ways to gain computer science skills. First, you can major, minor or pursue a master’s degree in computer science.
Second, you can take a class in computer coding, mobile app development or website design. Colleges offer classes, but you can also take informal online courses at sites like Codeacademy and MIT OpenCourseWare.
Finally, there’s no better way to learn computer science than to get involved in research, organizations or companies that will require you to learn aspects of computer science and apply them to real-world applications right away.