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NSU’s New Health Degree Supports U.S.’s Black Healthcare Data

Norfolk State University (NSU) has received over $5 million in funding to establish a Master of Health Informatics (MHI) degree program. This initiative, supported by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, aims to train students in Public Health Informatics and Technology (PHIT) to analyze public health data and improve healthcare outcomes. The program will address the needs of local and state public health organizations and provide a pathway for students to enter this key segment of the healthcare workforce. One student in the inaugural class, Hassan Rabbani, is passionate about addressing health disparities and believes that good data is crucial for delivering better health outcomes to underserved communities.



By Leonard E. Colvin   
Chief Reporter   
New Journal and Guide   

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the virus impacted underrepresented communities, including people of color in urban communities, at a higher rate.

Not only were the infection rates high among these demographics, but the death rate was too.

The federal and state healthcare network found itself scrambling to determine why and how to respond.

This created a critical delay in determining what resources were needed and how they could be deployed to communities to reduce the infection and mortality rates.

The disparity in access to healthcare caused varied chronic health issues which made people vulnerable to the virus, and the initial lag in directing viable resources were two key factors attributing to the high rate of infections and deaths it was revealed.

During the last two months, state and federal healthcare officials have detected a rise in infections and hospitalizations, due to the latest COVID variant.

The nation’s healthcare network is developing strategies and manpower to ensure it is ahead of the curve to respond to a potential new wave of infections.

One of them is a $73-million effort by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Funds are allotted under the Public Health Informatics & Technology Workforce Development Program to train 5,000 people across the country in Public Health Informatics and Technology (PHIT).

PHIT analyses public health data, including information derived from health records, economic conditions of people living in each zip code or neighborhood, and their access to resources such as fresh food, to develop strategies to improve healthcare outcomes.

Norfolk State University (NSU) and nine other institutions are recipients of this funding to create a PHIT degree program.

ONC awarded the funds to 10 recipients including Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), Hispanic-serving institutions, and Asian-American and Native-American Pacific Islander-serving institutions through the American Rescue Plan, which also has a goal of improving COVID-19 data collection.

Dr. Marie St. Rose is the Director of Allied Health in the Department of Nursing and Allied Health as well as a professor at NSU. The university has received over $5 million to establish a Master of Health Informatics (MHI) degree program administered by the Department of Nursing and Allied Health in the College of Science, Engineering, and Technology.

NSU’s program is a collaboration with the Virginia Department of Health and the Hampton Roads Community Health Center.

NSU will be the first public HBCU in Virginia to offer the MHI degree program.

According to Dr. St. Rose, the degree program has begun this fall by training almost 60 students, and they will train 100 students by the end of the grant in 2024.

The Master of Health Informatics requires 33 credit hours, including the internship. The program is offered entirely online except the internship.

“The formation of a consortium with the Virginia Department of Health and Hampton Roads Community Health Center will help to share best practices, pool resources, increase the exposure and credibility of the Master of Health Informatics as a signature program., as well as meeting mutual goals that are beneficial to Virginia’s local and state communities,” said Dr. St. Rose.

The degree program will address the health informatics needs of local and state public health organizations through key approaches in consortium and curriculum development which includes training, a paid internship, career placement, community of practice and sustainability.

The internship will provide students an opportunity to apply what they have learned in the coursework. The internship provides an experiential academic component to enhance a student’s skillset while working with preceptors in healthcare settings. Since students in the degree program are practicing skills learned in the program, prior internship experiences cannot be applied in place of this requirement. The internship will require a minimum of 240 clock hours.

NSU will now join institutions with established programs such as Bowie State University; California State University, Long Beach Research Foundation; Dominican College of Blauvelt, Inc.; Jackson State University; Regents of the University of Minnesota; University of Texas Health Science Center; University of Massachusetts at Lowell; University of California, Irvine; and University of the District of Columbia.

Dr. St. Rose said that apart from providing a pathway to a career in PHIT, it will be a means of culturally and racially diversifying a growing and key segment of the healthcare workforce in the region, the commonwealth, and nationally.

Hassan Rabbani is one of the students in the inaugural NSU PHIT class. Rabbani said he is passionate about addressing the health disparities prevalent in our society and believes that it is only through educating ourselves that we can address the challenges of tomorrow.

He graduated Summa Cum Laude from Norfolk State University with an undergraduate bachelor’s degree in health services management. With the guidance of his professors, he decided to take his education further by pursing the MHI program.

Rabbani, 42, and his family arrived from Pakistan 23 years ago, with $1170 “fresh off the boat” and began to pursue the American dream.

He said he was keenly aware of the aims of the new career which involves collecting information from varied sources to determine the efficient applications of resources “to identify the needs then allocate the right number of resources excluding cultural and racial bias inherent in the American makeup.”

He said that the varied socio-economic disparities affect the lives of the nation’s underserved communities, and he sees the PHIT program as his way to make a positive difference.

“Good decisions come from good data, and I think that’s the best way to give back to the community –knowing where something is needed the most so you actually, effectively deploy the correct resource for that,” explained Rabbani.

Rabbani says it is important to him to be part of delivering better health outcomes to the most vulnerable.

“Ultimately, we’re as strong as the weakest one amongst us,” Rabbani said. “I’ve been here 23 years, and you get to see how the area has changed, how the demographics have changed, and how many of the things have still remained the same for the people who actually need them to change the most.”

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