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
Dr. Rachel Engler-Stringer has had an active couple of months when it comes to knowledge translation including one event in Ottawa with a familiar face as a guest.
She serves as president of the Canadian Association for Food Studies (CAFS), which met for its annual conference in Ottawa in May. For this year’s event, she had Dr. James Daschuk speak about his book, Clearing The Plains, which chronicles famine and starvation among Indigenous people on the Prairies in the late 1800s and the role the federal government, particularly under Prime Minister John A. MacDonald, played.
“Rachel is so good that she got me thinking about Clearing The Plains in a different way – as a study in food security, so in couching my story in those terms, I could relate to CAFS and widen my own horizons – my next project may centre around food, health and disease because of my experience with them,” says Daschuk.
While the Canadian Association for Food Studies represents researchers from a range of disciplines, including humanities, social sciences and health sciences, they do not typically look at food research from the historical vantage point.
“It was really different from our typical keynotes. Our typical keynotes study food all the time,” says Engler-Stringer, adding that the response was very positive.
The annual conference followed the Food Environments in Canada symposium and workshop, held in Saskatoon, May 20 to 22. The event featured Engler-Stringer and Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine speaking about SPHERU’s food environment research involving children and access to healthy food, as well as the Good Food Junction intervention in Saskatoon.
Food Environments in Canada also featured speakers such as Dr. Steven Cummins from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Dr. Jason Gilliland. There are video links available for the talks. Full coverage is available on the kidSKAN website.
In late June, Engler-Stringer also took part in a three-hour workshop with planners and others as part of THRIVE 2015, the annual conference of the Saskatchewan Professional Planners Institute and the Canadian Institute of Planners.
The workshop focused on the Pleasant Hill area of Saskatoon, which has disproportionately high outcomes for trends such as attempted suicides and infant mortality. One of the focal points of the tour was Station 20 West, which includes the Good Food Junction, the food desert intervention that Engler-Stringer is studying. Other presenters at the workshop included Eric Westberg, Senior Planner, City of Saskatoon; Neal Kewistep, Program Manager, Building Health Equity, Saskatoon Health Region; Len Usiskin, Manager, Quint Development Corporation; and Maryam Mehtar, Director, Social Pediatrics/Pediatric School-Based Health, University of Saskatchewan.
One of the things blossoming from Dr. Shanthi Johnson’s work is a new gardening project in Estevan to promote health aging in place for seniors, as well as bring a community together.
In June, she helped partners for the It Takes a Village…Growing Together for Promoting Healthy Aging in Place project break ground on the community garden.
Johnson applied to the Fulbright Canada-RBC Eco-Leadership Program for funding and has worked with community partners and the Sun Country Health Region (SCHR) to establish the garden projects, which is an age-friendly community garden.
“This is a really practical project and a new partnership with SCHR and the City of Estevan,” Johnson says. “We hope this will lead to other initiatives to promote healthy aging in place in the future.
The project is taking place at a vacant lot in Estevan, with 18-inch raised beds that are accessible to youth or senior, as well as those that use wheeled walkers.
A total of 16 raised garden plots are to be built with support of youth from the local school, families and seniors, while Johnson and a Public Health Nutritionist will provide education on different aspects on gardening, with help from local gardeners and experts. “All involved will volunteer their time with all the produce will be donated to the local food bank,” Johnson says. Beyond the physical component to the project, it also provides a way to counteract social isolation among seniors.
The goal of the Fulbright Canada RBC Eco-Leadership Program is to support volunteer-based project that will make a significant positive environmental impact in the community and engage with the community. This project promises to achieve this goal and help the new partnerships grow and flourish to benefit the communities.
It Takes a Village was featured in a recent story in the Estevan Mercury in which Johnson talks not only about the project but the importance of her experiences with maintaining garden plots at home when she and her siblings were children. Estevan Lifestyles also ran a piece on the project.
SPHERU’s Saskatchewan Historical Health Timeline is the beneficiary of some additions courtesy of Dr. James Daschuk’s students.
For his Health in Canada class at the University of Regina, he had his students research some aspect of the history of health of interest to them and compose a paper, put together a presentation and contribute to the timeline itself.
“They did a study of the history they’re interested in,” Daschuk says.
For example, one dental student looked into the history of population health dentistry. Another looked into how post-traumatic stress disorder was dealt with historically – for example, as “shell shock” around the time of the First World War.
Other topics include a history of pharmacy, the health implications of Chinese immigration and a history of polio and tuberculosis. One student even looked at old advertisements from the days in which Lysol was soft-sold as means of post-coital cleansing.
“There’s a lot of information,” he said. “I wanted the core of their paper visually represented.”
The students wrote papers and gave a five-minute presentation, as well as provided material for the timeline.
The project was only part of the itinerary for the 21 students in the 300-level class. Along with the history projects, they also investigated sexual assault policy on campuses, even sending their papers to the assistant vice-president to develop sexual assault policy for University of Regina. As well, they looked into best practices in food security on campus, information which will be presented to the University of Regina Students’ Union.
“They can actually influence policy,” Daschuk adds.
Also as part of the class, the students picked a health news story each week as a topic for discussion.
“We tied whatever story we had into the social determinants of health or policy,” he said.
The students represent a range of areas within health, and the classwork is designed to give them a broader perspective on their area of study. For example, a couple of biochemistry students wanted to learn more about the social determinants of health in order to prepare for medical school, and they found a number of their questions for the medical school interview had a social determinants of health lens and were ones the students had already discussed in Daschuk’s class.
As Daschuk says, the emphasis on the social determinants of health is designed to examine the implications of decisions the students will make once they begin their careers and, ultimately, this background will create more rounded professionals.
“It’s more progressive. It’s going to create better doctors and health professionals,” he says.
Dr. Paul Hackett was interviewed for the prestigious journal, The Lancet, about some of SPHERU’s historical research into the social determinants of health for Aboriginal people.
The online article by Angela Pirisi looks at the health disparities for Aboriginal people in Canada and focuses on different work across the country, including that of SPHERU. Specifically, it touches on the research looking into the epidemic of type 2 diabetes among the First Nations population.
It represents part of the work that Hackett and Dr. Sylvia Abonyi have been doing in terms of exploring the historical antecedents for present-day health disparities for Aboriginal people. Some of this has seen them examine residential school entrance exam data (1919-1953), in the process of creating a unique and substantial database of historical body mass index (BMI) values.
Hackett and Abonyi, with co-author Dr. Roland Dyck, presented some of their BMI findings in Fredericton in November at the Canadian Association for Physical Anthropology conference, while Abonyi will be presenting more BMI findings on behalf of the group at a conference on circumpolar health in Finland this year. A paper summarizing key findings has also been prepared for publication. Hackett plans to do a presentation before the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and the Centre for Aboriginal Health Research (CAHR) at the University of Manitoba (http://umanitoba.ca/centres/cahr/) and the manuscript will be submitted for publication following an informal review by First Nation colleagues and partners: “We’re going to get their feedback before we submit it,” Hackett said.
In November 2014 Hackett presented in Toronto on the legacy of tuberculosis in residential schools and how it spread, again drawing on historical data. Hackett has also submitted a paper called “Tuberculosis, Years Ago: Reconciliation and First Nations Narratives of Tuberculosis in the Canadian Prairie Provinces,” as well as an in-house paper showcasing SPHERU’s history work. “Everything we’re doing now is laying the groundwork for the larger work,” Hackett says.
While the data provide a valuable look into historical population health, the research also raises some ethical questions about stewardship of historical Aboriginal population health data, most of which is publicly accessible, and how it should be used. Hackett recognizes the challenges and emphasizes the need for collaboration with partners in the Aboriginal community, both in the research phase and after the papers have been published. With regard to the residential school data, one idea could be to have the Truth and Reconciliation Commission act as the permanent storehouse, so that residential school survivors could easily access their own records.
The Healthy Aging in Place team presented at the Aging in America Conference once again this year.
The event, one of the largest multi-disciplinary conferences on aging in North America, was held in Chicago from March 23 to 27. It attracted more than 3,000 people, including policy makers, practitioners and researchers. Over five days, it offered more than 500 workshops, forums, symposia and sessions on a range of topics pertaining to aging. Dr. Bonnie Jeffery, Dr. Shanthi Johnson and Dr. Nuelle Novik gave two presentations based on SPHERU’s rural healthy aging work.
On March 24, their workshop focused on brain health and rural aging. It looked at healthy older adults’ perceptions, myths and meanings of brain health, key practices and interventions that rural seniors highlight as important to supporting brain health, and innovative awareness and communication strategies for supporting brain health in rural communities.
At their March 26 presentation, they discussed rural healthy aging in terms of access to information by looking at the nature and depth of information seniors require, the supports and barriers in accessing it, and recommendations for improvement. Our findings have underscored the importance of person-to-person communication and ongoing relationships, as well as consistent and accurate information.
Last year, the team went to the Aging in America Conference in San Diego and gave presentations on developing a rural healthy aging assessment framework, rural seniors’ perspectives on age-friendly communities and healthy aging in place, and urban seniors’ food security.
Aging in America covers issues affecting the senior population, such as aging in community, business and aging, health and wellness, healthcare and aging, and multicultural aging. It is presented by the American Society on Aging. (For more background on the conference, see the article from Forbes.com.)
This May, the Smart Cities, Healthy Kids team is bringing in health, nutrition and planning experts for a three-day event in Saskatoon to look at food environments in Canada.
Food Environments in Canada begins on the evening of Thursday, May 21, with keynote speaker Steven Cummins, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He will give a free talk about food-based interventions. There will be a symposium the next day at Station 20 West, followed by a half-day methodological workshop on the Saturday. It also includes a panel discussion and an interactive poster session.
The event follows up on a Smart Cities, Healthy Kids community presentation last fall, also at Station 20 West, which presented findings from the study on Saskatoon’s food environment as it pertains to children, as well as draft recommendations aimed at tackling childhood obesity.
On the agenda for the full-day symposium on May 22 will be speakers SPHERU’s Rachel Engler-Stringer and Nazeem Muhajarine; Jason Gilliland, director of the Urban Development Program and professor of Geography, Health Sciences and Paediatrics at the University of Western Ontario; Jennifer Black, assistant professor in the Food, Nutrition and Health program at the University of British Columbia; Kelly Skinner, a CIHR postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Indigenous Learning and the Department of Psychology at Lakehead University; Yan Kestens, associate professor at the Social and Preventive Medicine Department at École de Santé Publique de l’Universite de Montreal; and Leia Minaker, a scientist with the Propel Centre for Population Health Impact.
The objective of Food Environments in Canada is to bring together researchers, students and practitioners to discuss current food environment research and examine the strengths and challenges of food environments in the country.
The conference in sponsored by the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Health Canada, the Saskatchewan Population Health and Evaluation Research Unit and the University of Saskatchewan. For registration, see www.foodenvironments2015.ca. (A limited number of bursaries are available. If you are interested please email firstname.lastname@example.org prior to registration.)