Thanks to a $12 million dollar donation from David and Gail O’Brien, the newly named O’Brien Institute for Public Health, W21C and other O’Brien researchers can continue to make a difference to your health.

This story was published by UToday with the headline “Ten ways O’Brien Institute members make a difference to your health.”

Thanks to advances in medical care and public health over the last century, we now live on average 25 years longer. A large portion of the credit for this could be given to improvements in public health and health policy.

Public health and health policy are not specific to any single disease or body system. They impact populations broadly. From improving care for people with chronic conditions and working to secure safe food and water supplies, to developing and delivering vaccination and immunization programs, pioneers in public health have identified and advocated for action against the underlying conditions that affect the health of our communities.

Public health researchers are at the forefront of championing legislative and regulatory initiatives to reduce the burden of premature and avoidable deaths, injuries and preventable diseases. Researchers and policy advocates also urge for measures to limit inequalities in health across education and income levels.

Here’s a look at just 10 research portfolios from members of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the University of Calgary that have made an impact in our community. This list provides a brief snapshot of some of the incredible work being conducted in Calgary, moving us closer to better health and health care in the future.

National food policies and health

Poor diet and unhealthy lifestyles are major contributors to cardiovascular disease, stroke and cancer, and the leading causes of death and disability in Canada. Institute members like Dr. Norm Campbell, Charlene Elliott, PhD, and Lindsay McLaren, PhD, have developed research and policy recommendations to reduce salt and trans fat content in processed foods. They are also looking at how food marketing affects the health of our populations. Through this work, the development of national food and nutrition policies will help reduce the burden of health conditions caused by poor diets.

Improving care experience for those with chronic conditions

More than 60 per cent of Canadians have a chronic disease requiring care. As a clinical endocrinologist, Dr. Doreen Rabi’s research focuses on both the health of populations and improvements within the health system. She looks at improving the care experience for people with chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension, gender differences in disease, and health tools to better connect patients with their doctors.

The relationship between the environment and our health

Inflammatory Bowel Disease is a potentially debilitating and incurable disease of the gastrointestinal tract affecting 233,000 Canadians, and can potentially lead to lifelong pain, intestinal bleeding and diarrhea. Institute member Dr. Gil Kaplan was the first to find a link between IBD and air pollution, after conditions including heart and lung disease were also correlated to the air we breathe.

Sending patients home from hospital with safe, secure information

Health providers write a lot of information about a patient while they are in the hospital — diagnosis, medications, care recommendations — important data that a patient’s regular doctor needs in order to continue their care. Without that “continuity of care,” patients can take the wrong medication, be re-admitted to hospital, or suffer other serious health problems. Researchers in the O’Brien Institute for Public Health’s W21C (Ward of the 21st Century) Program have developed the Electronic Transfer of Care Tool — a secure, web-based application to enable community health-care providers access to a patient’s critical information after discharge from the hospital. This tool has now been installed in all adult acute care facilities in Calgary with plans to expand across the province.

Injury prevention in sport

Thirty-five-per-cent of youth in Alberta will suffer a sport or recreational injury each year that will sideline them from the activities they love. Institute members such as Carolyn Emery, PhD, and Brent Hagel, PhD, focus on the causes and consequences of childhood and adolescent sporting injuries. These studies have spurred national policies on bodychecking, concussion prevention, and helmet laws. In Alberta specifically, peewee hockey has eliminated bodychecking based on the results of these studies, and Emery and Hagel aim to slash sports and recreational injuries in youth by 20 per cent by 2020.

Affordability of drugs

Drug prices in Canada have been rising steadily for decades with no signs of slowing down. O’Brien Institute members Dr. Braden Manns and Fiona Clement, PhD, are working on the implementation of provincial and national strategies to find solutions to this problem, such as bulk buying and generic substitutes. These strategies aim to boost sustainability and reduce future cost to all of us — both as individuals and at the health system level.

Walkability of cities for better health

Obesity in Canada and around the world is on the rise, and many researchers are looking beyond traditional, and often individual-focused, interventions for improving adult weight status. Institute researcher Gavin McCormack, PhD, recently published a review of scientific literature suggesting that the more often adults drive in motor vehicles, the more likely they are to be overweight and obese. This important knowledge is being shared with policymakers and transportation and urban planners to consider in city and neighbourhood planning.

Designing better hospitals to increase quality of care

Building a new hospital presents an opportunity to improve patient safety and care. As the province of Alberta began building Calgary’s South Health Campus in 2008, Alberta Health Services and the W21C Program teamed up to ensure evidence-based design was built into the facility. Led by Jeff Caird, PhD, of the W21C, four spaces at the new hospital were evaluated — an outpatient room, emergency department exam room, acute care space and intensive care room. This research led to design and usability changes that affected over 900 rooms, resulting in an estimated $1.7 million in cost savings during construction.

Equalizing access to disease-preventing vaccinations

Vaccines have been used as a measure of protection for our communities to reduce the outbreak of a number of infectious diseases. However, certain populations are at greater risk because they lack access to vaccines. Institute members Juliet Guichon, PhD, Lorraine Shack, PhD, and Drs. Richard Musto, Harold Lau, Ian Mitchell have used the results of their research to influence public health decision-making relating to human papillomavirus (HPV) and other disease vaccinations. Their efforts have resulted in increased vaccination use across Canada, with particular benefit to vulnerable populations.

Unnecessary medical tests

Lower back MRIs are among the most frequently requested scans in the health system, costing about $1,000 per scan. Thousands are performed each year, and the average wait for one in Calgary and Edmonton is seven months. O’Brien Institute member Dr. Tom Feasby led an investigation on the necessity of MRI testing procedures, finding more than half of the requested MRI scans for lower back pain may be unnecessary. This research has led to specific health-system improvements, including better patient selection and the avoidance of unnecessary testing — meaning people who need the test now have faster access to care.