Throughout the pandemic, cracks in the public health system became apparent to those in the field.
Inefficient reporting systems and a shortage of workforce data skillsets made it extremely difficult to share critical information about who COVID was impacting in real-time. The University of Minnesota is participating in the TRaining in Informatics for Underrepresented Minorities in Public Health (TRIUMPH), which aims to strengthen the public health data skillsets of underserved students and professional trainees. As a part of the program, the school of nursing is creating an informatics certificate program and the school of public health is creating an informatics track, both set to begin in the fall of 2022.
Officials with the program seek to increase education around public health informatics among underserved people in public health. Informatics is the use of data to help inform health and health policy, something that has always been important, but became more apparent during the pandemic.
The five school consortium, funded by a $7.9 million grant from the U.S. Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, covers informatics programs at the University of Minnesota, University of South Florida, Bethune-Cookman University and Georgia Southern University.
At the University of Minnesota, it is led by Rebecca Wurtz, an associate professor in the school of public health, and Sripriya Rajamani, an associate professor in the school of nursing.
Although recruitment efforts for the program are focused on underrepresented minorities in public health, it will be open to all master’s degree-seeking students and professionals in public health. The program aims to train around 600 people over four years across all the consortium partners.
Diversity in Public Health
Increasing diversity in public health will have profound impacts on communities of color. “If I don’t see myself in where the messaging is coming from, you’re not going to listen,” Rajamani said.
Yasmine Odowa is a graduate of the University of Minnesota’s public health program and the TRIUMPH program manager. She says public health needs more diversity, specifically in informatics, to reflect the communities that it collects data on and benefit them.
“As a person of color, as a Black woman working in public health, I think it’s really important to have people who represent the people that we’re collecting all of this data on,” Odowa said.
Pandemic “wake up”
During the pandemic, Odowa worked in the COVID management branch of the Minnesota Department of Health. The amount of data coming in was unprecedented, as Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) was getting COVID results from hospitals, nursing homes and individuals who didn’t have informatics training, she said. Because of that, there was a great demand and need for cleaning data on the backend.
Public health professionals realized that some systems needed fixing, and more people needed informatics training.
“We’ve seen during COVID how health departments were just absolutely overwhelmed with information, all the data that was coming in about COVID cases, but didn’t actually effectively translate that real-time into information about who was most vulnerable to COVID,” Wurtz said.
APM Research Lab found that Indigenous, Black, and Latinx Americans were at least 2.7 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than white Americans in 2020. Had this information been readily available, Wurtz said it could have been used to improve health systems.
“Although we were collecting lots and lots of data, we weren’t effectively managing it and real-time analyzing it. And so informatics in a public health context really refers to getting that data in a timely way and then making use of it in a timely way to improve people’s health,” Wurtz said.
“I think COVID is the push that we need as health departments and as public health, as a whole to really take data collection and data integrity and cleanliness and all of that and data systems to the next level; into the level that we should be,” Odowa said.