In my 13 years of being a public health professional, one thing I can’t ignore is the difficulty this field has faced in building workforce capacity, specifically in informatics and technology. Part of this is because public health has been critically underfunded over the years. Today, we’re seeing this challenge become more acknowledged, and COVID-19 has played a large role in that. The pandemic has really shone a light on just how antiquated public health systems are and the need to outsource information technology (IT) work because the capacity just hasn’t been there in-house. The will is there and the need is there; however, funding just has not met the need of the health departments to recruit, train and retain technical talent.
That’s why last year’s announcement of a $73 million award towards strengthening public health IT is such a huge step by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology. The Public Health Informatics & Technology Workforce Development Program (PHIT Workforce Program) will finally give public health some of the support it needs to attract, recruit and retain top talent.
This funding is really focused on driving more diversity and equity in the existing public health workforce, which is about 42 percent people of color. This program will hone in on increasing representation of underrepresented communities, a signal that public health needs to accurately reflect our demographic in the U.S. Equal representation brings a certain level of understanding to the types of data elements that should be collected and how to interpret them, and it allows health departments more insight and interaction with populations that have been commonly marginalized over the years. As a result, you have a more durable public health system that has less opportunity to miss key factors that impact population health. It excites me to know that not only are we building capacity with this funding, but we’re investing in bringing new faces into the field who may not have known about career options in public health.
As for PHII, we’re doing our part by training current students in academia, as well as the existing workforce, on the IT lifecycle as part of the PHIT Workforce Program. We will partner with the University of Minnesota to train up to 240 students and current professionals over a four-year period. I see this work contributing to scaling up in-house skills at health departments—adding more substance to the talent pool—and allowing for projects to run more smoothly across the board.
Seventy-three million dollars won’t cure all the ails, but it is a real step forward in trying to reinvigorate our informatics and IT workforce and train the next, more diverse, generation. My hope is that this continued funding lives longer than the grant period: it can’t just be one and done. It’s important to finish what we’re starting in order to build public health systems that can withstand the next public health emergency.
So if you’re a budding professional looking to enter the public health field, don’t hesitate. I know you can go into informatics and IT in the private industry, but if you really want to make a huge impact on your communities and the world, apply your technical skills to public health. You can make a real mark in how we live healthier lives by making data easier to collect, analyze and report to the public.
If you’re currently a public health professional, let’s work together to think about evolving our approaches with new ideas. Let’s think more broadly on how we can use new data sets and bring them into public health to solve health problems. Let’s expand beyond our current mode of operating and thinking to be more open and willing to try new things and use data more effectively.
The world is waiting.