The Saskatchewan Population Health and Evaluation Research Unit is a bi-university health research unit based at the Universities of Regina and Saskatchewan. Since 1999, SPHERU has established itself as a leader in cutting edge population health research that not only looks at what and the why of health inequities -– but also how to address these and take action.
Whats Happening at SPHERU
SPHERU Director Dr. Sylvia Abonyi recently spoke to provincial health professionals as part of Population Health Promotion Practitioners Council meetings at Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon.
The PHPPC, comprised of health promotion practitioners, meets each year for education and competency-building among members. This year’s theme was Core Competency: Knowledge and Skills.
Abonyi outlined the research unit’s history, its vision and mission, as well as many of the projects. She also discussed how the unit works collaboratively and shares expertise from various disciplines.
She touched on SPHERU’s research themes and cited numerous examples of past and present research, including Tuberculosis Education for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Youth, a Family Policy Assessment Tool for the Canadian Context, the Healthy Aging in Place work with rural communities, Wuskiwiy-tan! Let’s Move!, the Seasonality and Active Saskatoon Kids study and the History of Healthy Inequities projects.
The event also featured SPHERU associate member Dr. Cory Neudorf, who spoke in the afternoon about research and best practices. The meeting attracted participants from various health regions (Five Hills, Saskatoon, Regina Qu’Appelle, Cypress, Prince Albert Parkland, Prairie North, Athabasca, Mamawetan Churchill River, Kelsey Trail and Heartland), the Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority, Public Health Agency of Canada, the Ministry of Health and the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency.
The PHPPC includes health promotion practitioners from the 13 health regions, as well as the Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority (NITHA) and ex-officio members from the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency, the Ministry of Health’s Health Promotion Unit and the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Rachel Engler-Stringer and the Smart Cities Food Environment team recently produced a literature review looking at food environment research as it pertains to children.
The article, “The community and consumer food environment and children’s diet: a systemic review,” was co-authored by Ha Le, Angela Gerrard and Nazeem Muhajarine and is published in BMC Public Health (May 2014, 14:222)
The body of research into children and food environments is growing, and this article contributes by providing a comprehensive review examining food environments outside home and school and how these relate to children’s diet.
“It’s way of knowing what to look at, what is out there and what the gaps are,” says Engler-Stringer.
While the literature review gives context for the Smart Cities Food Environment study, it can also guide other researchers in the growing field of children and food environments in terms of identifying what new information is needed.
For the review, the team searched nine databases and refined a lengthy list of potential articles down to 26 that covered a set of criteria including community (location, accessibility) and consumer (price, promotion, placement) “nutrition” or food environments, as well as children and diet. Of the articles, 22 found at least one association between food environment and diet for children.
A significant finding is the variability in the ways researchers measure community and consumer food environments, as well with how they assess diet. For example, while GIS was used in many of the studies looking at location or access, there was a wide range used for buffer zones, from 160 to 3,000 metres. As well, only six of the studies used either indices of food prices or store audits to capture food environments.
“It’s hard to interpret results because we’re talking about such varying studies using varying methods,” says Engler-Stringer.
While the literature review does point to the limitations of the current research, Engler-Stringer and the team do find some evidence to link community and consumer food environments with dietary intake for children up to 18 years of age.
They also make recommendations for further research, including not only measuring observable parameters but also capturing perceptions of the food environment for children, as well as conducting more studies that combine community and consumer environments, using valid, reliable tools that can be used in multiple settings, and studying different age groups for children separately because of the different levels of mobility and independence.
“That to me is what’s most interesting,” Engler-Stringer says. “Children navigate their food environments very differently from adults.”
SPHERU researcher Shanthi Johnson recently contributed the piece “Healthy Eating and Regular Physical Activity: A Winning Combination for Older Adults” to Active Living Tips for Older Adults (ALCOA).
The tip sheet (Issue No. 6 March 2014) is produced by the Active Living Coalition for Older Adults. These are written in straightforward language and are available in English, French, Italian, Spanish, Punjabi, traditional and simplified Chinese. Besides eating and exercise, they provide information on topics such as preventing falls, strength training, brain fitness, aerobics and heart health.
Johnson’s tip sheet includes food information on how our body’s dietary needs change with time, the importance of a balance diet, the need for whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables and foods to avoid or reduce.
As far as physical activity, Johnson covers topics such as recommended amounts of activity, as well as the kinds of activities that help with strength, aerobics and balance. She also discusses the changes to bone and muscle mass that come with aging, and ways to offset these changes through diet.
The tip sheet also includes links to ALCOA, Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide and organizations that can provide more information.
ALCOA is a not-for-profit organization, comprised of 24 national and 35 local and provincial organizations. It was created to inform and educate older adults about the benefits of active healthy living.
Community-based research (CBR) highlights the importance of collaboration between academic researchers and community partners.
It’s based on the idea that they can best develop effective social policy and resolve social problems by working in unison.
CBR forms the subject of a recent book, Journeys in Community-Based Research, which marks a collaboration between SPHERU and the Community-University Institute for Social Research (CUISR) at the University of Saskatchewan. SPHERU’s Bonnie Jeffery and Diana Martz co-edited the book with Isobel M. Findlay and Louise Clarke.
As the book jacket states, “The goal of community-based research is to develop a deeper understanding of communities and to discover new opportunities for improving quality of life.”The book includes contributions from SPHERU researchers and staff, both past and present, including Jeffery, Martz, Ron Labonte, Juanita Bacsu, Mary Hampton, Gloria DeSantis, Hongxhia Shan, Nazeem Muhajarine, Pammla Petrucka and Fleur Macqueen Smith.
The book is divided into three sections that examine the ethics, advocacy and impacts of this research. The nine chapters provide cases studies of real-life examples of CBR between academic researchers and partners in Aboriginal, urban and rural communities, including:
The opening chapter, written by Diane Martz and Juanita Bacsu, which summarizes a study in which academic and community researchers were interviewed about ethical issues in community-based research projects;
Gloria DeSantis’s chapter about a project in which urban residents were addressing social services access as well as her experience as a community activist, practitioner and academic researcher; and
Fleur Macqueen Smith and Nazeem Muhajarine’s discussion of the impacts of an early years study in Saskatoon, including community-university partnerships and subsequent early years projects around the province.
The book concludes with a synthesis of some of the CBR themes that have emerged as well as the challenges faced by community and academic partners alike.Journeys in Community-Based Research is available from University of Regina Press. The catalogue is available online.
Dr. Sylvia Abonyi has been appointed as Acting Director of SPHERU, effective July 1, 2014.
She takes over from Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine, who will continue to be a part of SPHERU as head of the Healthy Children team. Dr. Tom McIntosh of the University of Regina will stay on as SPHERU’s Associate Director.
“Sylvia has been with the unit since its early days and has continually been a very active researcher, scholar and mentor to students and research staff,” Dr. Muhajarine said.
Abonyi is an anthropologist and long-time member of SPHERU. Her primary research area is Aboriginal health and exploring the links between culture and health. She has worked on a number of research projects in northern and remote Saskatchewan and across the Prairies. As well, she is an associate professor with the University of Saskatchewan’s Community Health and Epidemiology Department and holds a Tier II Canada Research Chair in Aboriginal Health.
“I am excited to take on this role for the next year and look forward to our SPHERU work,” she said.
SPHERU’s Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine has been appointed Interim Executive Director of the University of Saskatchewan School of Public Health, effective July 1, 2014.
The appointment is for one year, as the university conducts a national search to find a public health leader to take on the role on a permanent basis.
“I am confident that under Nazeem’s leadership, the school will enhance its potential to have a real impact on issues important to communities in Saskatchewan and around the globe,” Interim Provost and Vice-President Academic Ernie Barber said in a news release.
The release highlights Muhajarine’s background, including his work with SPHERU and his eight years as head of the university’s Department of Community Health and Epidemiology in the College of Medicine: co-leading the Canadian Index of Wellbeing: Healthy Populations report in 2011; serving as the lead on knowledge translation for a national Network of Centres of Excellence in neurodevelopment until 2013; reviewing academic programs in public health, epidemiology and community health for the Ontario Council on Graduate Studies; and serving on national review panels for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) on population and child health.
Muhajarine will chair a Heart and Stroke Foundation research review panel later this year and is leading a new CIHR-funded Saskatchewan network examining the efficacy of primary health care initiatives, the Strategy for Patient-Oriented Research (SPOR).
He will continue to lead SPHERU’s Healthy Children research team during his secondment to the School of Public Health.