Public health needs better IT systems, better data and a more diverse, educated health IT workforce, and the Biden administration is putting $80 million toward rectifying that situation.
The Health and Human Services Department announced Thursday a funding opportunity for the new Public Health Informatics and Technology Workforce Development Program, or PHIT Workforce Program, through the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT, known as ONC.
The funding—made available through the American Rescue Plan pandemic stimulus package—will go toward improving public health data collection, especially with regard to race and ethnicity data “around infection, hospitalization, and mortality rates, as well as underlying health and social vulnerabilities, that is disaggregated by race and ethnicity, age, gender, and other key variables,” ONC said Wednesday in a release.
A central part of improving data collection will be developing better training for public health IT workers, with a focus on encouraging underrepresented groups to join the field.
“As part of this launch, ONC is inviting college and universities—particularly 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 (MSIs)—to apply for funding through a consortium that will develop the curriculum, recruit and train participants, secure paid internship opportunities, and assist in career placement at public health agencies, public health-focused non-profits or public health-focused private sector or clinical settings,” the agency said.
The program’s goal is to train more than 4,000 people over the next four years “through an interdisciplinary approach in public health informatics and technology.”
“Representation is important—particularly when we are deploying technology to tackle our most pressing health care challenges,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement. “With this funding, we will be able to train and create new opportunities for thousands of minorities long underrepresented in our public health informatics and technology fields.”
Becerra also noted the importance of investing in programs like this now, ahead of the next pandemic.
“Investing in efforts that create a pipeline of diverse professionals, particularly in high-skilled public health technology fields, will help us better prepare for future public health emergencies,” Becerra said.
Micky Tripathi, the national coordinator for health IT, agreed, citing gaps in the number and diversity of health IT professionals.
“The limited number of public health professionals trained in informatics and technology was one of the key challenges the nation experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said. “This new funding will help to address that need by supporting the efforts of minority serving institutions and other colleges and universities across the nation to educate and launch individuals into public health careers.”
ONC plans on funding up to 30 projects. Awards will be capped at $10 million each, but the total program must come in under $75 million. ($5 million is set aside for program administration.)
That funding is also “contingent upon the availability of funds, satisfactory completion of milestones and a determination that continued funding is in the best interest of the federal government and the public,” according to the funding announcement.
The tentative plan is to accept proposals by Aug. 11 and announce awards on Sept. 14. The program is slated to run for four years—through September 2025.
Officials will offer more details during an information session scheduled for 2 p.m. June 23.