Emphasis is on Educating Diverse Students to Fill Jobs in Merrimack Valley

UML Public Health Chair Dan Berlowitz Image by Adrien Bisson
Public Health Chair Dan Berlowitz says a $3 million federal grant will educate students for vital jobs in public health data collection, analysis and reporting.

By Katharine Webster

A team of UMass Lowell faculty, led by Public Health Department Chairman Dan Berlowitz, has won a $3.09 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 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 colleges and universities around the country by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, is part of 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,” Berlowitz says. “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.”

UML Public Health major Jordan Lippincott and Assoc. Dean Nicole Champagne at a COVID-19 vaccine clinic run by Lowell General Hospital Image by Tory Wesnofske
Public health major Jordan Lippincott and Assoc. Dean Nicole Champagne volunteered at a COVID-19 vaccine clinic run by Lowell General Hospital, a community partner on the grant.
The grant, which includes several public health professors along with faculty from the Solomont School of Nursing, the Department of Computer Science and the Manning School of Business, will allow 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.

The Public Health Informatics & Technology Workforce Development Program grants 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 their curriculums align, so that 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.

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

“We could not have gotten this grant without our educational partners and our strong relationships with community partners,” Berlowitz says.

UML Public Health Prof. Wenjun Li Image by Courtesy
Public Health Prof. Wenjun Li specializes in data analysis and health disparities.
Asst. Teaching Prof. Amy Smalarz, undergraduate program coordinator for public health, says the new concentration for undergraduate public health majors will combine classes in computer science and public health, as well as business classes.

“Teaching students how to build those databases, how to organize them and how to use them is a big piece,” she says.

Undergraduates also will be required to complete internships with community partners – and will receive stipends so they can commit the necessary time to get that real-world experience.

Some of those internships will almost certainly lead to job offers, Smalarz says, and even if they don’t, her workforce research shows there’s a growing market for public health graduates with strong data skills at both the bachelor’s and master’s degree levels.

During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, many undergraduates and master’s degree students in public health volunteered as contact tracers under a state program. Some also assisted local public health departments and other agencies as they collected data on social determinants of health for COVID patients, including race and ethnicity, income level and neighborhood, she says, showing the need for such skills.

“Some of our undergraduates worked at local hospitals in what they call ‘Community Health Departments,’” she says. “Some of them were just in there helping medical groups compile data on their patients to better understand their COVID population and ask, ‘Who is it who’s getting the sickest?’”

UML Public Health instructor Sandra Guy has 25 years of experience in health care informatics Image by Adrien Bisson
Sandra Guy, who has more than 25 years of industry experience in health care informatics, will help design the curriculum.
Smalarz says that UML’s public health majors are very diverse already, and that giving them data skills will enable them to better analyze health disparities and address gaps – as well as build trust with different communities.

“We all come in with our perspectives, and I think our students would ask different questions with the data than maybe I would,” she says. “That’s a huge benefit.”

The new graduate degree and certificates offered through the 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, directed by Public Health Instructor Sandra Guy. The curriculum committee will also consider offering a new pathway or additional courses in the Master of Public Health program.

Guy worked in the industry for more than 25 years before moving into education – thanks to an earlier U.S. Health and Human Services grant. She began developing education programs in health care IT at Manchester Community College in New Hampshire a decade ago, when new federal regulations required hospitals and medical providers to switch to electronic medical records that could be shared, while protecting patient privacy.

But those regulations, which took effect in 2014, didn’t extend to community health centers, nursing homes or state and local public health departments, Guy says, and many of those providers and agencies still rely on paper records or in-house computer programs that can’t share data. Now, they are under pressure to upgrade their data systems so that they can report and share data quickly, Guy says.

UML Computer Science Prof. Hong Yu Image by UML
Computer Science Prof. Hong Yu, a member of the American College of Medical Informatics, is on the grant's leadership team.
“These agencies and providers need help – and UMass Lowell can provide that help,” she says.

The leadership team for the grant includes Berlowitz; Public Health Prof. Wenjun Li, a nationally recognized researcher in biostatistics; Assoc. Dean of Health Sciences Nicole Champagne; and Computer Science Prof. Hong Yu, a member of the American College of Medical Informatics.

Guy, Smalarz and Public Health Assoc. Prof. Leland Ackerson are leading the curriculum working group, which will also include Yu, Nursing Assoc. Prof. Brenna Morse, and Business Operations and Information Systems Asst. Prof. Nichalin Summerfield.

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.