PHIT Students Put Their Informatics Education to Use

David Su; Obiajulu Oduma and Samy Haidar | March 27, 2023

The University of California, Irvine (UCI) is one of 10 ONC Public Health Informatics & Technology (PHIT) Workforce Development Program awardees across the nation that are recruiting and training the next generation of diverse public health professionals in informatics and technology skills. With a goal of graduating 300 students/trainees of diverse backgrounds over the next four years, the PHIT Program at UCI aims to modernize the nation’s public health information infrastructure and address the issue of health disparities and inequities.

ONC caught up with three UCI students, David Su, Obiajulu Oduma, and Samy Haidar to learn about their experiences in the PHIT Program and how they see themselves making a difference in their communities with their education in health informatics.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

David: I am a current fifth year at UC Irvine aspiring to pursue a graduate degree in health informatics. I am double majoring in psychological science and sociology and minoring in health informatics. I became an ambassador for the UCI PHIT program to share my passion for using data analytics in healthcare settings. I am also a peer mentor at UCI’s Disability Services Center where I guide mentees in navigating campus resources and developing skills such as goal setting and self-advocacy.

Obiajulu: I’m a current fourth year at UC Irvine majoring in public health sciences and minoring in health informatics. I grew up in Los Angeles, CA. I’m highly interested in improving healthcare with information technology, and I hope to pursue a career in nursing after UCI. I’m also the creative director of the Nigerian Student Association on campus.

Samy: I am a current fourth year at UC Irvine majoring in human biology and minoring in health informatics. I grew up in Cerritos, CA. I’m very interested in the advocacy of community health and the development of informatics technology utilized in healthcare, as I aspire to go to medical school after UCI and ultimately become a physician. At UCI, I am also a peer academic advisor for the Campuswide Honors Collegium, in addition to being an undergraduate researcher in a pharmacology lab on campus.

Why did you decide to join the UCI PHIT Program and health informatics minor?

David: As a transfer student to UCI, I was exposed to so many different avenues that I became unsure what I wanted in a career. During the pandemic, I took time to explore various career options and utilized resources from UCI’s Division of Career Pathways. I discovered that I was interested in careers that were conventional, social, and investigative. To my pleasant surprise, these interests aligned with the health informatics field, and led me to discover the health informatics minor. The minor complemented my understanding of the prevalent mental health disparities in the United States. In one of my health informatics classes, I learned of the incredible opportunity UCI received from ONC in developing the PHIT program at UCI. As I was just starting out my health informatics journey, the development of the UCI PHIT program was an opportunity that I could not miss.

Obiajulu: I decided to join the health informatics minor because of my passion for public health and healthcare. I was drawn to how it dealt with understanding health disparities and improving health with information technology. In this day and age, technology is all around us and is constantly improving. I wanted to take that initial step to immerse myself in the IT space, and what better way to do that than with health informatics! Joining the PHIT Program gave me experience in addressing the needs of disadvantaged communities and being the change I wish to see.

Samy: As someone who has always wanted to pursue a career in health care, the health informatics minor struck me as a fantastic opportunity to learn more about the integration of technology into this continuously advancing field. Having shadowed hospitalists (physicians who only provide in-patient hospital care) at the UCI Medical Center, I realized the massive reliance that these doctors, along with the entirety of the hospital staff, have on the technology used to store patient records and maintain communication throughout the hospital. Through joining the UCI PHIT program, I hoped to learn more about this technology to better understand its importance in healthcare, while also becoming more aware of the impact of public health in the world around me.

What has the PHIT Program and health informatics minor taught you about health care and public health? What most surprised you or energized you?

David: As a PHIT Ambassador, I attended a symposium organized by AdvanceOC, a UCI PHIT consortium member. The symposium opened my eyes to the ongoing healthcare innovations in Orange County. I learned of the amazing ways AdvanceOC used data to investigate disparities even at the neighborhood level using their OC Equity Map. Additionally, I was surprised to see other innovations such as in the mental health field with another consortium member, Be Well OC. I learned how Be Well OC had a mobile crisis response team which provides in-community assistance to people experiencing mental health crises. As such, the mobile crisis response team helps community members while also supporting law enforcement and EMS.

I feel like my health informatics minor gave me a broader knowledge and skillset that will prepare me for the future in the health informatics industry. Taking additional courses in public health and information and computer science also made me aware of the social determinants of health along with using R (a programming language) for data analysis. It energizes me to continue learning about topics in health informatics and I am excited to be taking courses in consumer health informatics and health data analytics next quarter.

Obiajulu: I enjoyed learning from engaging material about the advancements that improve the health of others. Because health informatics is a relatively new interdisciplinary field, I find comfort in knowing there’s room for me to make a positive impact in my community. Both the PHIT Program and my health informatics minor have taught me that health IT is playing a significant role in bridging the gap between patients and healthcare providers. The fact that waste in the U.S. healthcare system is between $760 and $935 billion annually really surprised me.

Samy: I greatly enjoyed learning in-depth about past advancements and the progress that continues to be made to improve the accessibility and convenience of healthcare to both patients and healthcare workers. One energizing aspect of my health informatics minor was realizing the vast array of avenues I can take to find solutions for different concerns in healthcare.

For example, in one of my courses, we worked on a quarter-long project in groups alongside a sponsor with the goal of developing a technology that could advance a certain aspect of health informatics. My group explored the topic of spatial data as a crypto asset, which incentivizes keeping updated healthcare facility point-of-interest data, which can be carried over to services such as Google Maps and improve healthcare accessibility as a whole.

You completed a paid summer internship through the PHIT Program this last summer 2022. Where did you intern? What did you do as an intern?

David: I interned at the Orange County Health Care Agency (OCHCA) in their information technology division. At OCHCA, I received training on topics necessary to understand the IT behind a county’s public health agency, such as HIPAA, database management, data analytics, data visualization, and electronic health records. I used what I learned to create ad-hoc reports on the utilization of mental healthcare across the United States. I also created dashboards to help visualize the prevalence of mental healthcare utilization based on each state. The dashboards I created helped me better practice and prepare for tasks associated with healthcare data analytics. I also got the opportunity to make valuable connections and meet with mentors at OCHCA during this internship as well.

Obiajulu: I interned at 211OC, a non-profit organization that serves Orange County’s most vulnerable with the health and human service resources they need. My main project was using raw data files to produce the COVID Year 2 Report, which would allow data on COVID-19 and the community’s needs to be easily interpretable by the people of OC. I got to collaborate with my fellow interns and the Lead Data Analyst at 211OC for these projects.

Samy: I interned with the nonprofit AdvanceOC, where I participated in two projects researching healthcare data ranging from the county level down to the census tract scale. Using both state and national sources, I compiled healthcare data covering a variety of indicators such as healthcare access and quality, mental health, and respiratory diseases. This was to find the latest reliable information that could be used to update AdvanceOC’s Orange County Equity Map, a valuable resource that “spotlights social and health disparities in Orange County neighborhoods across multiple dimensions.” I also got to partake in in-person focus groups with OC community members and create profiles on different population groups in OC to outline the social and health disparities specific groups faced.

What did you learn about public health informatics from this internship experience?

David: My internship exposed me to the various software tools the agency uses such as Tableau, Snowflake, and Microsoft SQL Server. I received extensive training in using Tableau, and I learned how to connect to databases, clean datasets, analyze data, create visualizations, and build dashboards to share with others. I practiced these skills by finding third party datasets within Snowflake and analyzing the data within Tableau. Additionally, my mentor at the agency showed me a demo on how they provide online STD test results to patients while also safeguarding the integrity of protected health information. It was interesting to see the utilization of Microsoft SQL Server on the backend as I am still learning SQL in my personal time. Overall, I was able to learn the applicable software being within the public health informatics industry.

Obiajulu: My internship experience taught me skills in collecting, cleaning, and manipulating data. As someone who had no prior experience with data and information technology, I thought that I would struggle. But with the support of my team, I thrived. Most importantly, this internship taught me to always ask questions and ask for help when there is something I don’t understand.

Samy: My internship experience taught me several skills in collecting and analyzing data in a way that can be easily accessible to the public, which is important in progressing public knowledge and awareness of current healthcare issues. Working with AdvanceOC helped me better understand the factors that affect different populations across Orange County. Learning about the historical context of various communities in the region, alongside details of how economics and education, mental health, and social disparities affect everyone differently, has transformed my perspective of public health and what it means to pursue a career in healthcare.

ONC thanks David, Obi, and Samy for speaking with us! Next, David plans to work in the field before pursuing graduate work in health informatics, Obi plans to serve her community as a nurse practitioner, and Samy plans to attend to medical school. UCI will continue to offer internships to over 50 students at 15 placement sites this upcoming Summer 2023.

Find more information about ONC’s PHIT Workforce Development Program

Find more information about UCI’s Public Health Informatics & Technology Program