As the daughter of immigrants, Letsy Cahue-Flores would often act as a translator for her parents, helping them communicate with store clerks or read through various documents. “My most memorable experiences, however, have been interpreting in health facilities, places with an ongoing problem of inadequately informing non-English speakers about their or their children’s health status and options when translation services are unavailable,” says Cahue-Flores. “This accessibility barrier was the catalyst that encouraged me to research fields that would combine my interests in healthcare and computer science.” Her research led her to health informatics, a multidisciplinary field focused on leveraging technology for improved healthcare outcomes.
Cahue-Flores is now a senior at UC Irvine, majoring in informatics in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS), minoring in health informatics and benefiting from UCI’s new Public Health Informatics & Technology (PHIT) program. She and fellow informatics majors Grace Newman and Daliana Solis Solis share their experiences here, talking about how they’re studying health informatics as they prepare for their professional futures. These are just a few of the more than two dozen students studying health informatics in ICS.
“Informatics is a relatively unknown field, but that’s what makes it so exciting,” says Cahue-Flores. “There is so much potential for it to improve the lives of others, particularly in the area of public health.”
Exploring Health Informatics
UCI — the only UC school with a dedicated informatics program — offers health informatics as a specialization within the major or as a minor. The latter allows not only ICS students but also those majoring in other areas, such as nursing, public health or pharmaceutical sciences, to gain related knowledge and skills. Currently 135 of the students minoring in health informatics come from majors outside of ICS.
Like Cahue-Flores, Solis Solis is also a fourth-year informatics major with a health informatics minor. “After taking Informatics 171: Introduction to Health Informatics, I became interested in telemedicine, patient portals and electronic health records,” says Solis Solis. “What prompted me to focus on health informatics was the concept of users being able to manage their health data and share their data with their providers.”
Healthcare is increasingly intertwined with technology. Data about our health is gathered by a variety of mobile apps and devices, stored in electronic health records, enhanced with new imaging and diagnostics tools, and shared during telehealth visits.
“Informatics has incredible potential to better public health,” says Newman, a second-year student specializing in health informatics. “It has the capability to reduce repetitive work for healthcare providers, show us data pertaining to vast populations of people, and help us predict what services might improve public health in the future. Every telehealth appointment, COVID-19 contact-tracing notification, and electronic health record exists because someone applied informatics as a solution to a public health concern.”
All three students are gaining valuable skills from their ICS courses, learning how to program, write requirements documents, design and build prototypes, conduct user research and testing, develop applications, manage projects, and work in teams with diverse skill sets.
“I have had the chance to expand my knowledge and skills by taking programming, design, and project management courses, which I apply to my work at the STAR Lab,” says Cahue-Flores, referring to UCI’s Social & Technological Action Research (STAR) group, where she is conducting research. “Collaborating with a Ph.D. candidate [Elizabeth Ankrah], I am currently working on developing sociotechnical solutions to meet the distinctive needs of adolescent and young adult childhood cancer survivors through interviews, co-design sessions and UX design.”
Solis Solis has worked on her own set of projects at UCI. “I have worked on applications that aim to improve women’s health through walking, [improve] student communication with their on-campus housing, and [increase] creativity by allowing users to share their stories with others,” she says. “My future personal project is a child nutrition tracking application where parents can find healthy recipes for their children.”
In addition to courses and projects, the students are also gaining real-world experience with internships through the new PHIT Workforce Development Program that UCI launched in January.
Public Health Informatics & Technology
With funding from the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), UCI’s PHIT Workforce Development Program is recruiting and training the next generation of diverse public health professionals in informatics and technology skills. The focus on diversity among program participants is key, with a goal of more than 80% coming from ethnically diverse groups.
“An inclusive and technologically competent workforce is crucial to the future of public health,” says PHIT program director Kai Zheng, a professor of informatics and emergency medicine at UCI. “We face an urgent need to train a 21st century public health workforce to use digital tools like social media and mobile health apps to reach vulnerable populations. This program aims to position students for success as they encourage positive behavior change, improve public health messaging and analyze data on the social determinants of health through emerging technology.”
Cahue-Flores and Solis Solis both have paid PHIT internships this spring working with the All of Us research program, a National Institutes of Health initiative focused on tailoring healthcare to the individual. They will be analyzing participant demographics and enrollment patterns, tracking calling patterns, tracking staff efficiency and working on data visualization dashboards.
“In this role, I am tasked with creating a searchable database/master index that generates a codified number based on user input,” says Cahue-Flores, who will pursue her master’s in health informatics at UC Davis in the fall. “This [internship] will further enhance my data management and analysis skills, which will prove valuable in my future career endeavors.”
Solis Solis, who hopes to become a technical product manager, agrees. “The PHIT internship allows me to apply my knowledge and skills to practice in a professional setting,” she says. “My internship program provides the opportunity to learn how to work with data and databases, which is something I have not done before.”
Newman has lined up a PHIT summer internship at APAIT Orange County, an organization focused on access to prevention advocacy, intervention and treatment for vulnerable communities. She is excited to enhance her ICS education with hands-on experience and exposure to the real world of public health work.
“I would love to become a health informatics specialist or a clinical information analyst,” she says. Such careers require both a solid understanding of public health trends and strong computational skills. “I hope to use big data to further our understanding of how racial and economic differences impact healthcare outcomes for people around the United States.”
As for Cahue-Flores, she says her ultimate goal is to serve underrepresented and underserved populations. “Whether in academia, research or industry, I am committed to positively impacting the healthcare experiences of these communities and addressing their unmet needs,” she says. “My passion project is to one day improve the current Medi-Cal system by developing a personalized health portal that empowers non-English speakers to access and manage their health needs more easily.”
— Shani Murray