By Megan Sayles,
AFRO Business Writer,
The University of the District of Columbia (UDC), in partnership with Howard University (Howard), was chosen alongside nine other universities across the country to boost the public health informatics workforce in 2021. The universities were funded by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), which agreed to deploy more than $75 million for this initiative.
Together, the historically Black institutions used the funding to launch PHIT4DC, a program that seeks to recruit at least 500 students, with an emphasis on those from Wards 7 and 8, over four years and train them in public health informatics technology (PHIT) at no cost.
According to Charletta Washington, program director for PHIT4DC, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need for more robust technology to monitor and respond to public health challenges and emergencies. This paved the way for the ONC’s investment.
“Everyone is familiar with public health because of the recent pandemic, but the informatics technology portion of it is the systems that apply to public health,” said Washington. “It’s being able to implement and run, as well as get data, from systems that apply to public health. The Health Information Exchange is a great example. You’re able to find medical records and data on immunizations.”
PHIT4DC not only serves students at Howard and UDC, it also trains healthcare workers, entry-level career starters and those who are changing careers. The first cohort ran during the 2022 to 2023 school year, and 71 students completed the program.
“I don’t think COVID is our last pandemic. We are a country that will see another pandemic, and having a focus on public health while we’re in a lull gets us prepared for the next one,” said Washington. “We can prepare a new cohort of individuals that will be our feet on the street and will impact the community so that next time we’re not looking at two years at home but maybe just a couple of months because we have data flowing.”
PHIT4DC offers several pathways, including a health equity fellowship, virtual applied data science training, a PHIT experiential course and PHIT bootcamp. The pathways teach students about project management, career readiness, interoperability, behavioral health and mental health.
Students also have access to subject matter experts to learn about the range of public health careers that are available to them and what they involve.
Ozioma Scott, a recent graduate of Howard University, learned about the PHIT4DC program while completing her practicum for the college’s Master of Public Health program.
“I thought it would be a great opportunity to get more experience and more knowledge on different areas of public health, and public health information technology was an area that was new to me,” said Scott.
Scott initially planned to pursue a career in medicine but decided to explore public health after her mentors and family urged her to open herself up to other professions that benefit the health of communities.
“Since I’ve been in the program, I’ve learned the importance of interoperability and how healthcare and technology can intersect in addressing the health disparities in our communities,” said Scott. “I also learned about using informatics tools and data-driven approaches to address problems and identify the needs of communities as well, which can help to design targeted interventions and improve health care access and services.”
In the coming years, Scott plans to pursue a Ph.D. in public health, although she hasn’t decided which school to attend.
“I think through public health and the training I’ve gotten from PHIT4DC, I’ll be able to harness the power of technology and intersect it with public health to make more informed decisions because we are moving toward a technological era where everything is becoming digital,” said Scott.
Megan Sayles is a Report for America Corps member.