HHS doling out $80M to improve public health IT, COVID-19 data collection

Stethoscope with doctor's health report clipboard on table. Medical examination and doctor analyzing medical report on laptop screen
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, according to Micky Tripathi, Ph.D., national coordinator for health information technology. (ipopba/GettyImages)

The Biden administration plans to dole out $80 million to shore up public health technology, COVID-19 data collection and bolster representation of underrepresented communities in the public health workforce.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' health IT arm is using American Rescue Plan funding to establish a public health informatics and technology workforce development program.

As part of this launch, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) is calling for college and universities—particularly historically black colleges and universities, Hispanic serving institutions, Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-serving institutions and other minority-serving institutions—to apply for funding through the program.

A consortium 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, HHS officials said.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed gaps in the country's public health reporting and data analysis, particularly around 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.

RELATED: Biden to invest $7.4B to boost public health workforce to better prepare for future outbreaks

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, according to HHS officials.

"Representation is important – particularly when we are deploying technology to tackle our most pressing health care challenges. Ensuring that diverse representation is better reflected all throughout our health care system is priority for the Biden-Harris administration,” 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. 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.

RELATED: In Missouri and other states, flawed data make it hard to track vaccine equity

The public health informatics and technology workforce program aims to train more than 4,000 individuals over a four-year period. Under the 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.

“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,” said Micky Tripathi, Ph.D., national coordinator for health information technology, in a statement. “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.”

In May, the Biden administration announced plans to invest more than $7 billion from the American Rescue Plan to expand the public health workforce.

The funding will allow the U.S. to expand its public health workforce—creating tens of thousands of jobs to support vaccinations, testing, contact tracing and community outreach—and strengthen America’s future public health infrastructure, according to a White House press release.

The massive investment comes as the country's response to the COVID-19 pandemic has shone a harsh light on the under-investment in public health over the past several decades.