Computer Buff Melds Medicine and Technology

Emmanuel Berchmans has always been a computer wiz devoted to sharing technology with others, so when he entered the Miller School’s Honors Program in Medicine he wanted to ensure that he and his classmates could stay up-to-date with the latest medical technology.

But when he discussed starting a chapter of the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA) at UM with Mark O’Connell, M.D., senior associate dean for educational development and technology guru, they made a surprising discovery: The organization didn’t have formal student divisions.

With the group’s – and O’Connell’s – blessing, Berchmans formed the first student chapter of the AMIA this past fall. He recently travelled to Washington, D.C., to brief AMIA brass who are monitoring the group as a possible template for other student branches.

Berchmans’ presentation was as impressive as his progress. In just a few months, he has recruited about a dozen students to help him make presentations about technology to their peers. He’s organized campus events where he has demonstrated unique features and apps on devices, such as the iPad, which UM provided to all M.D./M.P.H. students. He has enlisted other members to join him in posting reviews of new technology, including, for example, a guide on how to make the most of Noterize, an app that enables students to import, share, edit or highlight notes. And, with O’Connell’s help, he invited Mark Blatt, M.D., worldwide medical director of Intel, to speak at a student forum.

A lot more is on the drawing board.

“We have quite a few active people, but the mission is not to grow membership,” said Berchmans, who is now a member of the AMIA’s Student Chapter Task Force. “We really want to encourage more use of and exposure to technology and make informatics part of medical school curricula. Whether you’re into technology or not, it’s going to be a crucial part of what we’ll face when we graduate and begin our careers in medicine.”

A computer buff since age 7, Berchmans has been intent on simplifying, sharing and capitalizing on technology since he began refurbishing old computers for needy families in high school. With buddies at Tampa’s King High School, he launched Project PC Hookup: Florida, collecting old computers, wiping them clean, then retooling and giving them away to people who couldn’t otherwise afford them.

He still runs the program, and signed up the University as a supplier of outdated but still usable computers. Recently he and friends in the Delta Epsilon Psi service fraternity, a chapter he founded as an undergraduate, refurbished more than 50 old computers and, with the help of Project Medishare, sent them to a community center in Haiti. He also gets help from Howard Kaufman, a retired business consultant who shares his passion for helping others through technology.

“My parents place a high premium on helping others and they instilled that value in me,” said Berchmans, the son of a nurse and a hospital unit coordinator who moved from the Kerala region of India to Chicago, where he was born, then to Tampa when he was a year old. “You are never too old or too young to give back.”

Those values flourished in high school, where Berchmans gravitated to a group of bright and highly motivated students who, like him, were from immigrant households. They all signed up for the rigorous international baccalaureate program.

By the time they graduated with outstanding GPAs—“I think we broke some state records,” Berchmans says—members of the IB group had been accepted to nearly all the Ivies and other highly selective colleges.

“Many of us had similar backgrounds so we fed off each other,’’ Berchmans said. “We were great friends and we motivated each other to succeed.”

Although he considered a career in journalism and computer science, he felt his real calling was in medicine and had his eye on UM’s seven-year Honors Program in Medicine. The program gives highly accomplished high school students early acceptance into the Miller School and the chance to complete both their undergraduate and M.D. degrees in seven years.

He entered UM in 2007 and began medical school last year with the belief that “medicine offers you the chance to help people in a manner that positively affects their lives immediately.”

And he’s happy when technology can make that impact even more immediate. At the October Little Haiti Health Fair organized by the student-run Department of Community Service (DOCS), Berchmans volunteered as both healer-in-training and logistics/tech expert. Acting on his idea, he and fellow students set up the health fair’s first slide shows to dispense valuable health information to patients in English and Creole.

“Technology is changing our profession so we should embrace it and use it for good,” said Berchmans. “And there is so much good for us to do.”

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