Big Data, Big Results: UW Selected as Member of IRIS Registry Analytics Consortium


The University of Wisconsin is now a member of the American Academy of Ophthalmology’s Intelligent Research in Sight (IRIS) Registry Analytics Consortium. This will allow the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences access to big data that has the potential to shape future scientific research, improve patient care, and offer new opportunities to department learners.

Gregg Heatley, MD, MMM was instrumental in spearheading the efforts for several years. “It’s safe to say that this is a huge deal,” said Heatley. “This is the way of the future for clinical research.”

Established in 2014, IRIS is the world’s largest specialty clinical data registry and, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, includes “de-identified electronic health record data from thousands of participating ophthalmologists and allied eye care providers across the United States.”

Since its creation, IRIS now features de-identified data on over 483 million patient visits, with that number growing daily.

While ophthalmology practices across the country are able to submit data to the IRIS registry and use IRIS information to benchmark clinical performance against national standards, only a select few academic institutions with capacity for big data analytics are able to utilize IRIS for research purposes.

That means UW faculty and collaborators will be able to tap into this repository of data, analyze subsets of information, search for trends, and much more. More than 50 project ideas involving IRIS data have already been generated by department faculty, and more are likely forthcoming. Potential projects range from better understanding the side effects of a common topic steroids to expanding a smaller study measuring ocular trauma during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve put together a team of wonderful researchers who are enthusiastic about big data, and we continue to put the infrastructure in place to fully take advantage of this information,” said Christina Thomas-Virnig, PhD, director of translational research. “With traditional clinical trials, you’re often getting limited data, but with IRIS, we can potentially review data involving millions of people. I believe this is going to lead to collaborations and partnerships across campus. We’re hoping that researchers will come to us with their interesting questions, and using IRIS, we can collaborate to try and answer them.”

Alexander Miranda, MD, currently leads the department’s Big Data Team, since Heatley’s retirement last May. While the potential for clinical research is exciting, Miranda says he’s also eager to dig into the numbers to improve patient care at UW.

“I’m ready to use our data compared to the database data to find out where we’re really exceeding expectations and where we have opportunities to get better,” he said. “This is a huge step up to see where we compare to the national benchmarks, and where we can improve.”

Even beyond bolstering research and patient care, both Miranda and Thomas-Virnig say IRIS can be a great teaching tool for resident physicians and clinical fellows, as well as junior faculty members getting their start.

“It’s something that doesn’t require a lab and has almost no overhead,” Miranda said. “Basically, with any good idea that a learner or new faculty member has, they can tap into the data and with one request, likely receive enough information to fill several scientific papers.”

While many staff and faculty, including Thomas-Virnig, have been hard at work for years building a strong case to join the IRIS Registry Analytics Consortium, the University of Wisconsin Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences has long been home to nationally recognized population-based studies that have filled a similar need. Under the leadership of Professors Matthew “Dinny” Davis, MD, Ronald Klein, MD, MPH, and Barbara Klein, MD, MPH, the department’s Ocular Epidemiology Research Group has conducted long-term studies including the Beaver Dam Eye Study and the Wisconsin Epidemiologic Study of Diabetic Retinopathy, resulting in the accrual of significant data and the publication of more than 600 papers.

“When it comes to population-based research, we’ve been a national leader,” Miranda said. “With IRIS, we’re building upon legacy in a very exciting and modern way. We can’t wait to get started.”


The UW IRIS Team consists of:

  • Jonathan Chang
  • Roomasa Channa
  • Suzanne van Landingham
  • Alexander Miranda
  • Kyle Peterson
  • Christina Thomas-Virnig