Federal Official Cites Need for Modernized Health Information Infrastructure

Lawreta Kankam, Heer Patel and Essi Havon
Master of Public Health students Lawreta Kankam, Heer Patel and Essi Havon attended Micky Tripathi's talk about modernizing public health systems.

By Karen Angelo

Goodbye, faxes, paper and spreadsheets. Hello, streamlined public health communications. A digital revolution is happening in health care, and public health will not be left behind, says Micky Tripathi, national coordinator for health information technology at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

Tripathi spoke on campus recently to students, staff and faculty about the modernization of public health systems in celebration of National Public Health Week. It was also a homecoming for him, since he grew up in Chelmsford, Massachusetts. 

“My mother worked at Lowell General Hospital and still lives in Chelmsford; my sister lives in Dracut,” he said at the opening of the event. “It’s a pleasure to be here to share how we can transform our public health infrastructure with your help and the benefit of youth.” 

A generation that has grown up with computers isn’t intimidated by digital technologies or the internet, said Tripathi, who leads the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), the federal entity charged with coordinating nationwide efforts to implement the most advanced health information technology and the electronic exchange of health information. 

“We need public health professionals with IT experience who can work with the ONC and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on a project to make disparate public health systems interoperable,” he said. 

Tripathi’s office supports the overall administration of the Public Health Informatics & Technology (PHIT) Workforce Development Program, an American Rescue Plan-funded program that awarded UMass Lowell $3 million to help build a pipeline of diverse public health IT professionals. 

Led by Prof. Dan Berlowitz of the Department of Public Health, the UMass Lowell PHIT program was developed in partnership with three local community colleges — Middlesex Community College, Northern Essex Community College and Nashua Community College — and eight community health agencies. 

“Having Dr. Tripathi on campus talking about the national vision for public health systems was inspirational for our administration, community leaders, staff and faculty,” says Berlowitz. 

Dan Berlowitze and Micky Tripathi
Prof. of Public Health Dan Berlowitz with Micky Tripathi, who leads the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology.
Since the program was launched, UMass Lowell has developed new undergraduate and graduate courses and trained 46 students to date. Berlowitz’s team is working with community health partners to secure career-connected internships for students. These new professionals are needed to prevent what happened during the pandemic, when public health information systems either didn’t exist or couldn’t keep up with daily tracking, reporting and sharing, says Berlowitz. 

Tripathi explained how each state and jurisdiction has the authority over how they collect and report public health information. 

“Our public health system is not really a system, but rather disparate islands of information,” said Tripathi, who was appointed to his role in January 2021. “We don’t see this as a roadblock. I believe that we can find ways to connect with each other and share information in more modern ways than we do today.” 

To illustrate his point, he asked the audience to think about using Venmo to transfer funds to a friend who doesn’t have the same bank, or calling a colleague on a mobile phone who doesn’t have the same network carrier. 

“You probably don’t even think about it. The infrastructure operates in the background to make these systems autonomous, secure and shareable,” Tripathi said. “We need to apply this knowledge to public health.” 

Tripathi stressed that the type of information needed in a public health system goes beyond patient records. 

“As the pandemic demonstrated, we also need easy, fast ways for health care providers to quickly report information to the CDC, such as how many ICU beds and ventilators are available and how many clinicians are on staff,” he said. 

He believes that this can be done without an added burden to health care providers and state and local public health offices and that UMass Lowell is doing its part to make that happen. 

“There’s important work that's happening at UMass Lowell to get the students trained and become experts so they can help build a digital interoperable public health system,” he said. 

Master of Public Health student Heer Patel, who is taking the health care management track, attended the event to learn about the plans for developing shareable systems at the national level. 

“I found the event to be very informative, and one theme greatly stood out to me — the idea of uniformity, connectivity and being able to communicate easily from one system to another,” says Patel, who will graduate in May 2023.