New education programs aim to address the gaps in public health workforce capacity

UMass Lowell has been awarded a $3 million cooperative agreement from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology to develop new undergraduate and graduate programs in public health informatics and technology, to educate diverse students for vital jobs.

The grant, one of 10 awarded to minority-serving institutions and other institutions of higher education around the country, is part of the Public Health Informatics & Technology Workforce Development Program, a federal effort to address the gaps in public health capacity that hurt the U.S. response to COVID-19. The funding comes from the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion federal aid package designed to address the public health and economic impacts of the pandemic.

"Tremendous weaknesses in our public health data infrastructure were exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic," said UMass Lowell Public Health Prof. Dan Berlowitz, chair of the department, who is leading the initiative at the university. "Information systems were not there, and data-handling expertise and management were not there for tracking positive tests, contacting people who had been exposed, identifying high-risk populations, and reporting illness and death. And even when they were there, everyone was doing it differently."

The project will include several other UMass Lowell public health professors, faculty from the Solomont School of Nursing, the Department of Computer Science and the Manning School of Business, allowing the university to develop a new undergraduate public health pathway in health informatics and technology over the next year, as well as a new graduate program and graduate certificates for people already in the workforce.

As part of the federal effort, UMass Lowell will also aim to increase the number of people from underrepresented communities in the public health IT workforce and to educate all students in health equity.

UMass Lowell is partnering with Middlesex and Northern Essex community colleges as it develops the new undergraduate major to make sure students who graduate from the two-year schools can transfer smoothly to UMass Lowell. All three schools are designated as "minority-serving institutions" by the U.S. Department of Education, Berlowitz said.

UMass Lowell also will work with community partners throughout the Merrimack Valley to place students in internships and make sure the new programs meet local job needs.

We could not have received this grant without our educational partners and our strong relationships with community partners."

Dan Berlowitz, UMass Lowell Public Health Professor

The new concentration for undergraduate public health majors will combine classes in computer science and public health, as well as business classes, according to UMass Lowell's Amy Smalarz, assistant teaching professor and undergraduate program coordinator for public health.

"Teaching students how to build those databases, how to organize them and how to use them is a big piece," she said.

The new graduate degree and certificates offered through UMass Lowell's Division of Graduate, Online and Professional Studies will draw on courses for the existing master's degree in health information management with a focus on health informatics.

The community and industry partners on the grant include the city of Lowell Health Department, the city of Lawrence Board of Health, the Greater Lowell Health Alliance, the Greater Lawrence Family Health Center, Lowell General Hospital, the Department of Veterans Affairs Center for Healthcare Organization and Implementation Research, the UMass Chan Medical School Division of Health Informatics and Implementation Science, LLX Solutions, and Academic Public Health Corp.

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