Some of us may remember incessantly refreshing D.C.’s various COVID data dashboards every afternoon, trying to make sense of the bar graphs jumping up (bad) or down (good), as charts moved from yellow, to red, to green, to yellow again, and so on.
Or maybe we remember the various hiccups in COVID data reporting, like when two weeks’ worth of D.C.’s case information went unreported, or when an IT error made the city’s case count look suspiciously low. Or, maybe we recall how the first few weeks of COVID vaccine distribution were riddled with website crashes, glitches, and confusion.
Among many institutional failures highlighted by COVID, the pandemic also showed how ill-equipped the United States’ public health data infrastructure was to handle such a systemic stress test.
About to embark on its second year of classes, a joint program out of the University of the District of Columbia and Howard University aims to solve that problem by training a new tech-savvy cohort specifically in health data management. The ultimate goal of the program is to improve health communications for the city’s predominantly Black communities, who were most impacted by COVIDand often failed by poor public health responses.
“We knew [in the pandemic] we needed more individuals interested in public health, but we definitely need more individuals in the informatics portion of public health,” said Charletta Washington, a program manager and instructor for PHIT4DC, or Public Health Informatics Technology (PHIT) for D.C., an initiative to offer free data and health information system classes to the city’s underserved residents. “Everybody now is comfortable with the term public health, the health of the entire community. Informatics is the technology behind that – it’s how do we share information, how do we run systems?”
Launched for the first time last August, the program offers a 15-week course in public health informatics, touching on topics ranging from the basics of information technology to artificial intelligence. The courses are free to students.
Both Howard and UDC faculty collaborate to design PHIT4DC’s programming; Dr. Mashonda Smith, UDC’s Dean of Workforce Development, is the program’s principal investigator, and UDC’s Dean of Academic Affairs Dr. Marilyn Hamilton manages curriculum development. Pamela Carter-Nolan, the director of Howard’s Public Health program, and other Howard academics serve as co-investigators.
The program is funded by a $8.7 million grant from the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, a federal entity within the Health and Human Services Department. In 2021, as a part of the American Rescue Plan, the federal government tagged $73 million to launch public health informatics development programs at “minority-serving institutions,” many of which were Historically Black Colleges and Universities. In addition to UDC and Howard University, other universities across the country including Bowie State, Norfolk State, and California State were awarded grant dollars.
While the program is housed in a university, anyone can apply to join — creating a wide breadth of experience levels and backgrounds that Washington says makes the program unique.
“In your group, you can have a college student, high school students, you could have a member from the community who’s not enrolled in college and never done health care,” Washington says. “They all bring together different life experiences.”
Dennis Means, a third-year pharmacy student at Howard University, completed the course earlier this year, preparing for his eventual career as a clinical pharmacist at an inpatient hospital. For Means, his classmates ranged from fellow pharmaceutical students to undergraduate students of varying majors, to community members completely unaffiliated with the university. He cited the diversity of his classmates’ experiences and being able to collaborate with students who had not spent several years in medical academia, as a strength of the group.
“If you want to help build the community, you need people from the community to bring their ideas to the forefront,” he says. “The fact that we have a class that encouraged people within the community to not only be a part, but we empowered them to bring their ideas as well, not just sit on the sidelines… it helps to build trust between community leaders, students, and health professionals, who all have a common goal. That is increasing awareness and public health in these communities.”
The program is largely designed to improve the infrastructure of the city’s public health information systems, so that if another outbreak or emergency occurs, data would be available quickly, expediting public health responses. For example, it took weeks for states to report the racial and ethnic demographic data for COVID cases and deaths at the onset of the outbreak, and the vaccination rollout was beset by racial and geographic inequities that took localities weeks and months to meaningfully address. Means says that if the data was easily available, it could be easier to identify those gaps and close them quickly.
“Informatics can be used… to pinpoint what the need is in different communities,” he said. “If we’re getting a lot of patients with this same zip code coming in with HIV symptoms or syphilis symptoms, or we realize this specific zip code has a lower health literacy than we see on average… by using data that we collect, we can start to build programs and systems that can target the needs of different neighborhoods and communities.”
Beyond using data to inform treatment or care, the program also seeks to improve how health systems communicate with each other. It partners with CRISP DC, a health information exchange in D.C. selected by the city’s Department of Healthcare Finance, to share information securely across providers in the city, so medical professionals can see up-to-date information on their patient’s recent health visits. Other partners of the program include the D.C. Hospital Associate, the D.C. Primary Care Association, and DHCF’s Healthcare Reform and Innovation Administration.
The course, which includes both remote lectures and in-person group projects, is completely free. Materials like textbooks are also covered, and any student lacking in the proper tech for the class (like wifi or a functioning laptop) can receive assistance from the program. PHIT4DC loans laptops for the length of the course and offers enrolled students open access to the UDC and Howard buildings, and can also provide wifi cards for students without a reliable connection at home.
“We try to make this a program for individuals to succeed, and try to remove barriers,” Washington said, adding that they’re partnering with other local nonprofits to provide meal and housing assistance to students who might need it throughout the semester. “We understand our students may have some roadblocks that we need to assist with, to make sure that they’re successful in this period.”
The program opened up to high school students in January this year, working in partnership with D.C. Public Schools. Washington taught a few high schoolers earlier this year, consistently surprised by their ideas that she, or even other people with public health experience, may not have considered.
“They were teaching me. I’m thinking I’m giving them a world of information, but they were talking about things like in the virtual reality world that I didn’t even know existed,” Washington says. “It was great to see that level of creativity, and that next level of thought that’s coming through our pipelines in high school.”
While it’s difficult to find high school students for the fall semester (their school year starts later than the PHIT4DC semester), Washington said they’re actively seeking more teenagers to participate, and engaging with different DCPS programs to promote enrollment.