ONC launches new $80M workforce development program

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced this week that the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT will spearhead development of a new Public Health Informatics & Technology Workforce Development Program.

Funded to the tune of $80 million drawn from the American Rescue Plan, the PHIT Workforce Program is meant to boost public health through new training and in medical informatics and data science, according to HHS.

The agency is inviting colleges and universities – especially Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Tribal Colleges and Universities, Hispanic Serving Institutions, Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions and others schools serving minority populations – to apply for funding.

“Representation is important – particularly when we are deploying technology to tackle our most pressing health care challenges,” said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra 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.”

The goal of the PHIT Workforce Program is to train more than 4,000 individuals over a four-year period through an interdisciplinary approach in public health informatics and technology. A consortium that will help 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.

Under the PHIT Workforce Program, ONC will award up to $75 million to cooperative agreement recipients and use the remaining $5 million to support the program’s overall administration, officials said. Award recipients will need to ensure their training, certificate, degree, and placement programs are sustainable to create a continuous pipeline of diverse public health IT professionals.

A major impetus behind this project is to tackle “pervasive health and socioeconomic inequities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic and ensure our healthcare system is better equipped for the next public health emergency,” according to HHS.

Beyond the fact that the pandemic disproportionately affected minority and underserved communities, the agency notes how the COVID-19 crisis exposed gaps in public health reporting and data analysis – particularly with regard to race and ethnicity-specific data.

“Some of these gaps can be attributed to limited technological infrastructure and chronic underfunding of the staff needed to support public health data reporting at the state and local levels,” said HHS officials.

“Federal efforts to center equity in the COVID-19 response and future public health responses will be improved by robust data collection and reporting 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.”

President’s Biden’s Executive Order on Ensuring a Sustainable Public Health Workforce for COVID-19 and Other Biological Threats has provisions calling for new programs to encourage a public health workforce that can equitably perform community-based testing to improve response to future pandemics and other biological threats.

“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,” said Becerra.

“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,” added National Coordinator for Health IT Micky Tripathi. “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 is hosting an information session about the new funding opportunity on June 23 at 2 p.m. ET.

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