During the last weekend of March, Ben Carson and Kyleen Wong went to The Ontario Public Health Conference (TOPHC) at the Allstream Center in Toronto. It was an eye-opening experience for the two students to see how the theory they were learning in their Health Sciences classes was being put into practice in the Ontario healthcare system.
Kyleen: The first session we went to was comprised of a series of presentations about the challenges of mapping neighbourhoods to produce health status information. The five presenters were epidemiologists from different urban areas in southern Ontario. The presenters explained how mapping neighbourhoods for the purpose of gathering and presenting health status information was difficult because neighbourhoods defined by Statistics Canada change from census to census. Besides making data difficult to compare, the ever changing boundaries don’t always match how individuals actually living in the area define their neighbourhood.
The presenters lamented the abolishment of the mandatory long-form census. Currently, data that epidemiologists use to produce health status information is from the National Household Survey. The low response rate and new methodology of this optional survey compromises the resulting data and all other reports that use census information. But as one presenter put it, “flawed data is better than no data”.
Another interesting point that a presenter raised concerned the ethical ramifications of potential social harms that individuals living in a certain neighbourhood may face, as their neighbourhood is single out as being negative in a certain health measure. The presenters stressed that although this is a very important ramification, producing reports and online interactive websites to disseminate information and knowledge is crucial because individuals have a right to this information about their neighbourhoods and because it informs individuals so that they can bring about change. Presenters explained that they emphasized that data should be used positively and constructively instead of destructively.
I found this session particularly interesting because it really put the knowledge I had gained from the Research Methods in Health Sciences course (HS 2801) into practice. I was able to visualize exactly how health statistics were utilized in everyday applications. Additionally, I was able to connect the information presented to my other Health Sciences courses, such as ethics and health promotion.
Ben: The second session we attended consisted of an ethics representative from Public Health Ontario (PHO) explaining and asking for feedback on a new innovation they are working on. This new innovation is called the Risk Screening Tool (RST). For any health related research study, you have to get it approved by an Ethics Board before going ahead. The tool is an online questionnaire which the researchers fill out about their project/study to determine how ethical it is. At the end, the site generates a score from 0-3; 0 being it is completely ethical and 3 being that it is questionable.
The tool has 6 sections: administration, sensitivity, participation selection, data collection, identifiability and privacy risk and, lastly, commercial use. Each section is comprised of approximately 4-5 questions and is quite detailed.
Although the RST is aimed towards determining whether health studies are ethical or not, it can be used for other non-health related projects too. This is interesting because usually an ethics expert will take a look at each study individually and will often determine that the study or project needs some changes. This can be avoided with the RST. As mentioned in the presentation, researchers can use the RST as a guideline while developing their ideas and this will reduce the amount of time it takes for them to get approved.
In the afternoon everyone gathered to listen to the keynote speaker, Jesse Hirsch. Jesse is involved in many media corporations and is heavy user of social media. His one hour speech that finished off the convention was about how health care professionals need to adapt to using social media to be able to provide optimal health care for patients.
He talked about “institutional and cognitive authority”. Institutional authority is simply someone with credentials who is influential (example: CEO of a large business). Cognitive authority is a term that Jesse coined. He defined it as someone who has the ability to be influential over social media (example: YouTube channel with three million subscribers)
Jesse thinks that by combining institutional and cognitive authority, this “mega-influential” person can be created. This was quite interesting because, a few days earlier, I sat in on the distinguished guest speaker’s lecture, Dr. Mike Evans. He talked more about cognitive authority (without using the actual term) and how social media is the new way of communicating information. Similarly, Jesse stressed the fact that quotes from institutional authority in newspapers have less of an impact on people as a tweet by a celebrity on twitter.
Kyleen and Ben: We would like to thank HSSA and the Student Opportunity Fund for giving us the opportunity to attend the 2015 TOPHC. The conference gave us a lot of insight on specific careers within the public healthcare system in Ontario.