The recent COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated pervasive health and socioeconomic inequities in the United States and exposed gaps in public health reportings and data analysis. These impacts were partly due to limited staff and technological infrastructure underfunding of the resources (people and technology) necessary to support public health at the state and local levels. Federal efforts to center an equity in the COVID-19 response and future public health responses will be improved by better data including data regarding race and ethnicity, infection, hospitalization, and mortality rates, as well as underlying health and social vulnerabilities.
As part of its ongoing COVID-19 response efforts, the Biden-Harris Administration is investing federal funds through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA)2 to recruit, hire, and train public health workers to respond to the pandemic and prepare for future public health challenges. Additionally, President Biden’s Executive Order on Ensuring a Sustainable Public Health Workforce for COVID-19 and Other Biological Threats calls for creating and sustaining a public health workforce capable of adequately and equitably performing community-based testing. To help advance these efforts, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) has created the Public Health Informatics & Technology (PHIT) Workforce Development Program. This program aims to increase the number of public health professionals trained in informatics and technology, with an emphasis on improving public health reporting through modern standards and computing. ONC anticipates awarding $75 million to train individuals to help modernize the nation’s public health data infrastructure, with a focus on recruiting participants from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs), Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions (AANAPISIs) and other Minority serving institutions (MSIs4). Through an interdisciplinary approach to data science and managing public health information, the program will build the capacity of HBCUs, TCUs, HSIs, AANAPISIs, and other MSIs, as well as other colleges and universities to educate and diversify the public health workforce of the future.
ONC will provide funding in the form of cooperative agreements under the PHIT Workforce Development Program to institutions of higher education, with a focus on engaging MSIs, to establish or expand public health informatics education programs, creating a diverse and inclusive health information technology (IT) workforce. HBCUs, HSIs, AANAPISIs and other MSIs often have strong science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs, composed of untapped talent. Over the last two years, ONC and other federal partners across the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) have made a concerted effort to recruit top talent from HBCUs, TCUs, HSIs, AANAPISIs, and MSIs.
Further investments in specifically developing health IT informatics curricula, career services mentorships, and related programs at these institutions and others will enrich the talent pipeline for future recruitment by state and local public health organizations, public health-focused non-profits, public health-focused private sector organizations, clinical care providers, and state, local or federal government entities. Through a period of performance of four years, the PHIT Workforce Development Program will provide selected recipients with funding to expand their existing programs or develop a new program, through which the program will train at least 4,000 individuals on public health informatics and technology to improve the nation’s public health workforce. In order to meet the President’s commitment to both address longstanding racial and ethnic inequities, and hire public health workers from the communities they serve, underrepresented minorities whose representation in the sciences and affiliated employment is smaller than their representation in the U.S. population will be recruited to participate in this program, which will be open to all individuals.