SPHERU engages in population health research – the study of social factors contributing to the well-being of various groups within the population.

Welcome to SPHERU

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.

What’s Happening at SPHERU

Food environment research enters next phase

SPHERU will be using face-to-face interviews and smart phones, among other methods, for its latest food environment research. Spearheaded by Dr. Rachel Engler-Stringer, the mixed-methods study will be look at questions around how people in marginalized areas of cities get their food. The study, Nutrition and Inequity in the Inner City: A study of diet and food access in the context of community-based food interventions will be conducted in different phases and use several methods to collect qualitative and quantitative data. The project is being supported by funding from three sources. The first phase is the result of a $200,000 grant over two years from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation (SHRF). “We’re trying to pilot using smart phones to collect diet data, food procurement data and movement throughout the city,” says Engler-Stringer. That is followed by a SHRF grant of $40,000 to support the second phase. Finally, the Urban Aboriginal Knowledge Network, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, is providing another $25,200 for the project. Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine is co-investigator for the first two phases, while Dr. Sylvia Abonyi is a co-investigator for the portion of the project funded by the Aboriginal Knowledge Network. The methods involved will include not only the six months of smart phone data collection but surveys, participant interviews and focus groups. For the qualitative portion, the research team will be working with 30 families, easing into the phase by taking time early on to build relationships with participants.  The project will not work, Engler-Stringer explains, if they do not trust the research team. “This is a marginalized, inner-city population,” says Engler-Stringer. “Almost all of the smart phone data studies to date have been done within affluent areas.” They will also need specific information to do the smart phone-based research – for example, they need to learn not simply the amount of income people are getting but when they receive it, so they can learn what times of the month there is money to spend. Partway through the smart phone data collection phase they will conduct interviews with participants, with the collected data providing direction for the line of questions. “It’s going to be a lot of data from a small number of people,” says Engler-Stringer. As far as the time frame for the study, the initial outreach will begin this fall, with the deployment of smart phones to begin in January and run through the first half of 2016, followed by another three to four months of data collection. Towards the end, the researchers will interview participants as to their observations and conduct focus groups, all of which will ultimately give a better idea of how families are obtaining their food. “We’re trying to use all of these sources of information to paint a comprehensive picture of household food procurement in low income, inner city, marginalized environments.”

SPHERU adds two new researchers

The Saskatchewan Population Health and Evaluation Research Unit has added two University of Regina faculty members to its ranks. Dr. Gabriela Novotna and Dr. Michelle Stewart will be joining the research unit as researchers. Novotna is an assistant professor in the University of Regina Faculty of Social Work. She received her PhD in social work from Wilfrid Laurier University in 2010 and followed that up for with Post Doctoral Fellow work at McMaster University’s Connections research program. Before her doctoral work in Canada, she was a Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health where she worked on substance abuse prevention and treatment. Her research interests include practice in the field of addiction, knowledge translation and institutional theory. In previous research, she examined issues around the implementation of integrated treatment for co-occurring substance abuse, mental health and gambling problems in Ontario. “I believe that becoming affiliated with SPHERU as a researcher will provide me with opportunities to collaborate with a multidisciplinary team of researchers and benefit from their mentoring and expertise,” Novotna says. Stewart is an associate professor in the Department of Justice Studies where she teaches in the area of social justice and research methods. She received both her master’s and PhD from the University of California Davis, where she researched political and legal anthropology. Currently, she is expanding her interest to include medical anthropology by looking into how Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is understood in various communities of practice. Stewart is Strategic Research Lead, Justice Interventions, Canada FASD Research Network as well as Director of the Community Research Unit at the University of Regina, which connects the university with community groups through research, service-learning and other collaborative activities. “I am a community-engaged and community-driven researcher that actively brings together health, advocacy and justice communities together for discussion, collaboration, research, action, and analysis,” Stewart says. Stewart and Novotna join a team that includes researchers from the Universities of Regina and Saskatchewan that represent a variety of academic backgrounds including geography, political science, anthropology, epidemiology, social work, kinesiology, and nutrition.

Novik hosts seniors’ mental health workshops

To find out what supports rural seniors need for emotional and mental health, Dr. Nuelle Novik organized workshops in a couple of Sunrise Health Region communities. The events were held in June as part of her pilot research project, Exploring emotional and mental healthcare supports for seniors in rural Saskatchewan, in the communities of Preeceville and Ituna. They took place at the local seniors’ drop-in centres, with 70 participants registering in Preeceville and 40 in Ituna. The pilot project looked at identifying the mental healthcare needs of seniors living in rural areas of the province. Funding for this came from CMHA (SK Division) and SHRF via an existing SPHERU research project. Additional funding for the workshops, including lunches, was provided by the Office of the President of the University of Regina, and from the Office of the Dean of the Faculty of Social Work. The workshops started with a presentation from Novik called Working with Seniors to Support their Mental Health. She also presented results from their research. As well, the Saskatchewan division of the Canadian Red Cross, which is partnering on the project, provided information to the seniors about their Friendly Visiting Program – an intervention that has come out of the initial project. Offered by Sunrise Health Region for the next three years, it matches seniors with volunteer visitors, who will connect with them regularly. The workshops included World Café discussions among participants on the data from the study. They also provided some opportunities for students, as Novik taught a social work class on aging to students at Parkland College in Yorkton. The students helped with setting up the workshop, registration and facilitating the World Café discussions. As for future work with the project, Novik will work with the Red Cross to evaluate the Friendly Visiting Program.

mHealth targets migrant worker population

In a recent blog for Grand Challenges Canada, Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine discusses some of the benefits from a Vietnamese pilot program which he is co-leading, to provide migrant women about sexual health information. The project, led by Muhajarine and Dr. Lan Vu from Vietnam’s Hanoi School of Public Health, is called mHealth information for migrants: A pilot project to increase health information accessibility for migrants in Vietnam. Funded by Grand Challenges Canada, it provides reliable, low-cost health advice for migrant workers using technology. As Muhajarine writes, the country has seen a massive increase of internal migration as workers head for cities to find employment. While Vietnam has become one of the fastest growing economies in the world, people still face many challenges, such as low income, lack of family support, poor social benefits and trouble getting access to health information and services. “Institutional barriers and cultural factors prevent these migrant women from accessing essential health services and the knowledge of how to keep themselves healthy in their new environment, especially concerning reproductive and sexual health,” he writes. A key part of the project involves providing information on topics such as sexually transmitted diseases, HIV/AIDS, contraceptives, safe abortions and pregnancy tests, for women via text messages on mobile phones. It also includes a phone hotline for counselling, as well as a website and discussion forum. The project evaluation, as Muhajarine says, has found that participants have shown a better understanding of sexual health issues because of increased access to the information. “The project proved that the mHealth model is a viable system for delivering timely, confidential and convenient health information to at-risk populations,” says Muhajarine. For more information on Grand Challenges Canada, see http://www.grandchallenges.ca/.

Engler-Stringer named a ‘food hero’

SPHERU’s Dr. Rachel Engler-Stringer was recently picked as one of seven “Food Heroes” by Slow Food in Canada. At the annual meeting in Montreal this June, Engler-Stringer was among the seven people chosen for Canadian Food Hero. The award is given each year to recognize individuals that protect, defend and promote “sustainable, good, clean and fair food” and contribute to a healthy food system by preserving culinary history of their region, regardless of their role. They can include anyone from growers and harvesters to writers and entrepreneurs. Engler-Stringer was the recipient for the Prairies. In giving the award, Slow Food in Canada called her a “dynamic activist” and cited her activities on the Saskatoon Food Council, as well as her research on food systems and health, with a focus on urban food environments and food security issues, as well as her efforts in developing an online interactive Local Food Map to connect people in the community with sources of food. In addition to being a SPHERU researcher, Engler-Stringer is an Associate Professor in the University of Saskatchewan’s Department of Community Health and Epidemiology. Slow Food in Canada has been active in different regions of the country for more than 10 years and includes more than 1,000 members.

Food environment KT looks at past, present

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.

SPHERU Newsletter

Issue 13
Oct 2015

Q&A with researcher Dr. Rachel Engler-Stringer

Photo Credit(s):
Northern and Aboriginal Health (SPHERU staff), Rural Health (Juanita Bacsu), Intervention Research (Hilary Gough), Healthy Children (Thilina Bandara), History of Health Inequities (Saskatchewan Archives Board)