By Matt Phillion
So much of healthcare depends on having the right data, collected from the right places, by knowledgeable staff. A national program is now working to shore up the public health workforce, training people from minority communities often left behind in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The program, the Public Health Informatics & Technology Workforce Development Program (PHIT) from the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, teaches students how to analyze data about and for their communities. The goal is to have students identify and work to resolve a national blind spot to get ahead of the next pandemic and lift the quality of data collection throughout the entire industry. Universities across the country in select communities are recruiting and training students in the specifics of health informatics so they can meet the needs of their own communities.
“I think we’ve seen the risks of not having a program like this,” says Charletta Washington, director of the University of the District of Columbia’s PHIT4DC program. “What COVID outlined for a lot of communities is this need to share information and work within systems. We have a need for public health and data sharing.”
The country rolled into crisis mode in 2020 and was forced to navigate a very different world.
“We used to be a country where we’d hear the flu cases are up and say, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll get a shot.’ But with COVID, we saw we need the case numbers and the ability to pull and share the data with multiple communities. The program really wants to get us to the point where we’re ready for the next one,” says Washington.
Preparing for the next crisis will take doctors and nurses and other professionals, but alongside them is a need for informatics expertise to ensure the data we learn gets passed along so we can act upon it.
“We can have all the doctors and nurses we need, but if we can’t share the information they’re coming up with,” that’s a challenge, says Washington. “The analytical side is a skillset. You can have all the data entered into the system, but who is running that system and getting the data out, understanding how it applies to the rest of the world? From an analytical standpoint, what do these numbers mean and what should I be doing from a public health perspective to facilitate the numbers going up or down?”
To encourage that kind of understanding and expertise, the UDC PHIT program, or PHIT4DC, has two pathways under its umbrella: the first is an introduction to informatics and the technical side of the skillset, while the other focuses on data analytics, how you interpret the data, and how it effects the patient population.
A matter of understanding
A key aspect to the program is making sure to recruit and involve people from the communities they will serve as professionals, because of the perspective on the population that first-hand experience provides.
“When you look at communities of color, there’s an initial distrust of the industry, and it’s an understandable distrust,” says Washington. “But there’s also the issue of access to care and services, or lack of access. When we can get a person from the community to say, ‘This is what we need to do and how,’ and then turn around and say, ‘This is how these numbers apply to you,’ we start to see that gap minimize.”
To that end, PHIT4DC is building a network of individuals and upskilling them with the necessary expertise so they can reach the community they are in. The range of students varies widely in life experience. PHIT4DC has PhDs and public health professionals, chemists and biologists, and asks the question: how do we get them to go back to their community and start building that trust?
This semester is the largest cohort so far, with the number of students growing exponentially each semester.
“It’s a grass roots effort,” says Washington. “We want to engage with the community. That’s why we will be holding barbershop talks. We want to go where they are.”
They are also working with high schools to build an early pipeline of future students.
“Let’s start the conversation,” says Washington. “It’s not just about public health and informatics. It’s also about healthcare in general. Where do you see yourself fitting into your community?”
A chance to engage with the future
Washington and her colleagues engage with prospective students anywhere they can: in person, at school, through social media.
“It’s a chance to engage and ask questions: What will I get out of the class? What are you going to teach me? It’s that first level of trust,” she says.
It’s also a chance to connect with people who may want to find a future in the healthcare industry but do not know where to start.
“People have dreams but often don’t know how to follow those dreams,” says Washington. “One of our students wanted to be an anesthesiologist, so I asked what science classes she’d taken. She has this dream, but nobody had sat down with her and walked her through the steps to get there. This goes back to the grass roots nature of our program and understanding where the people are.”
PHIT4DC subscribes to a policy called “no wrong door”: there’s no wrong avenue to get into the program. They connect with retired military, adults looking for a second career, high school students, college students and recent grads—anyone who can be a part of the future of the industry.
“I’d love to have more nurses or clinicians,” says Washington. “They have the clinical perspective, but this can help them see how their clinical perspective can affect the whole community.”
Healthcare can be an overwhelming space no matter how you get there, so the program starts by alleviating initial fears. It walks students through the EHR, discusses what healthcare systems mean, and breaks down the broad terms we take for granted in healthcare.
“If you bring up interoperability to someone new, they might say, ‘I can’t do this.’ But if you help them understand it’s just the ability to have the systems talk to each other and coordinate care, it’s different conversation you’re having,” she says.
Informatics has a broad applicability across the industry and beyond, so the program is offering a wildly impactful skillset to its students.
“The information you receive from us could lead you to becoming a community health worker, a career in behavioral health. If you have the desire to help and impact your community from a public health standpoint, this is the program for you,” says Washington.
It’s attracting students from all walks of life. Their oldest student is 68 years old and trying to understand these systems and how they can help their community.
“I think COVID really stuck with a lot of people: seeing the numbers, the death rates, and wondering what it all means from a public health perspective and how you can make sure you’re educating your community,” says Washington. “This gives us a way to be ready so we don’t have to get ready when the next thing happens.”
Public health prior to the pandemic in some ways flew under the radar. People were aware of it, but Washington points out that many didn’t have a keen understanding of public health until we were faced with a global crisis.
“We can say we have a crisis with diabetes or hypertension, access to medication, and these are public health issues, but it was COVID” that put a name to it for many, she says.
Informatics grows more and more important every day as well.
“You’re signing in at the hospital with a kiosk—that’s informatics. All of this information we enter into the system, where does it go now?” says Washington. “Informatics is on the forefront, and it’s always been there.”
Washington is optimistic that this growing interest—and growing student population—can make a big impact on public health and informatics.
“If and when we face this reality, with pandemics or hypertension or diabetes or substance abuse, it’s all a public health crisis. Now we’re developing a team that can have an impact,” she says. “We’ll meet the needs of the community from a public health perspective by analyzing the data and filling a much-needed gap.”
This kind of training enables a new generation of professionals to not only gather data but understand it and make changes that will have a powerful impact on the communities that need it most.
“What does the data mean and how is my community impacted by it? That’s the data perspective. And now how do I change it? That’s the public health planning perspective,” she says. “We’re helping them determine the why. The things you need to understand for a larger perspective.”
Getting to the root cause of a public health issue can lift an entire community or region.
“The more hands we have impacting the public, the better off we are,” says Washington. “The health of the public is the health of everyone.”
Matt Phillion is a freelance writer covering healthcare, cybersecurity, and more. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.