The organization formerly known as the Center for Health Data Science has rebranded to become Duke Forge.

The initiative aims to leverage the vast amount of data and information carried in the health care system to improve the lives of patients. In addition to the name change, Duke Forge has also recently appointed five clinicians to various positions within its ranks to lend their perspective to the organization’s mission.

“The purpose of Duke Forge is to deal with health data in a way that leads to improvements in systems of health care delivery and the ability of people to make decisions about their health,” said Robert Califf, vice chancellor for Health Data Science and Donald F. Fortin, M.D. professor of cardiology.

The name change did not come as a surprise, he added, as the Center for Health Data Science sounded “stale” and was merely intended to serve as a placeholder until someone could think of a name that would more accurately and vividly reflect the initiative’s goals. Califf noted that Duke Forge is a particularly appropriate name because it “implies a lot of heat and sweat and hard work” involved in “taking structures that might have been fixed and not very malleable before and melding them into something that’s different.”

The fixed structures, in this case, are the enormous streams of health care data that are generated each time a patient visits a hospital or clinic, he explained. Califf added that recent advances in technology have made it even more vital to weld the disparate streams of information together to provide more efficient care to patients.

“What we have today is a lot of data in our lives and in medicine, but we’re facing a lot of challenges making that data actionable,” said Yousuf Zafar, associate professor of medicine. “And what I mean by [actionable] is using that data to actually improve treatment and improve the lives of our patients.”

Zafar, one of the newly appointed clinical associate directors at Duke Forge, explained that his research as a medical oncologist has shown him firsthand the difficulty of integrating a large amount of health data. He added that one potential goal of Duke Forge would be to make cancer treatment more affordable by combining the electronic health records and insurance data for patients who were treated for cancer. Such a dataset could then enable physicians to better estimate the cost of a treatment and make prices more affordable.

Another possible avenue for Duke Forge to pursue would be to use data to identify the most promising clinical trials for each patient, Zafar explained.

“A lot of the clinical trial eligibility criteria is based on not just the patient’s cancer diagnosis, but also a lot of the potential biomarkers that might have been collected on the patients,” he said. “That data is not often readily available.”

Califf also emphasized the concept of “digital phenotyping” and how developments across cell phones and electronic watches can enable researchers to monitor patients outside of a clinical setting as well. Health information collected outside the hospital is important, he added, because the average person spends less than one percent of their time in a hospital or clinic.

“Most of what determines your health—that is how functional you are and how long you live—would be things that are not occurring in a clinic or a hospital, the decisions that you make every day and things that you get exposed to in everyday life,” Califf said.

Moving forward, he explained that Duke Forge was looking to grow by partnering with Duke faculty and staff rather than continuing to bring new people into the organization. He expressed interest in working with the Duke Clinical Research Institute and the Department of Biostatistics and Bioinformatics in addition to undergraduate programs such as the math and computer science departments.

Megan Clowse, associate professor of medicine and the other clinical associate director of Duke Forge, noted that she looked forward to working as a “liaison between clinicians and data analysts to help these two groups speak the same language.”

Zafar explained that he was interested in joining Duke Forge because of frustrations he encountered in his research and a hope to change the status quo in the health data sciences.

“What motivated me to become involved is that I see every day in my clinical practice and in my research the limitations of the way our data is structured today,” he said. “What I’d really like to do is work toward making that data more actionable.”