March 19, 2021

O’Brien Institute researchers address health inequities through social innovation

Co-ordinated project engages with vulnerable communities to promote health equity during COVID-19 and beyond
Researchers from the W21C Research and Innovation Centre, O’Brien Institute for Public Health, investigate drone delivery of medical supplies to remote communities during pandemic. Photo by Riley Brandy, University of Calgary.

A First Nation-led co-ordination effort for COVID-19 testing, tracing and containment is keeping the virus at bay in one of Alberta’s largest Indigenous communities.

Early in the pandemic, the health service at a southern Alberta First Nation developed a multi-faceted emergency response plan that included training family physicians to take on conventional public health roles such as following up on isolation orders and connecting patients with targeted resources.

The innovative thinking of Indigenous leaders has led to greater management of COVID-19 in a community identified as particularly at risk for the virus, says Dr. Rita Henderson, PhD, a member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM). 

  • Photo above: Researchers from the W21C Research and Innovation Centre, O’Brien Institute for Public Health, investigate drone delivery of medical supplies to remote communities during pandemic. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary 

Henderson is part of a University of Calgary research team funded by the College of Family Physicians of Canada to document and share First Nations-driven response plans and evaluate their effectiveness. When it comes to pandemic response, Henderson says there is just as much a need to address the social conditions that aggravate the pandemic for vulnerable groups, as there is to find a vaccine.

“We’ve seen the most vulnerable in our society prior to COVID-19 being hardest hit by the pandemic and we need to address the inequities that fuel this,” says Henderson, a member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI) and an assistant professor in the departments of Family Medicine and Community Health Sciences.

Rita Henderson

Rita Henderson is part of a team of researchers working with Alberta First-Nations communities on COVID-19 pandemic response.

Jared Sych, Avenue Magazine

First Nations communities are at particular risk from an outbreak because of often-crowded living conditions and high rates of health complications, such as diabetes and heart conditions, which are all driven by structural inequities. Innovative thinking was key to circumnavigate these challenges, says Henderson. 

The partnered Nations set up COVID-19 testing through their health services so that members didn’t have to travel to an urban area. Health services then also supported all household members in isolation while waiting for test results by providing food, necessary medical care, and ensuring other needs were met during isolation.

Dr. Tom Stelfox, MD, PhD, O’Brien Institute scientific director, says First Nation-led pandemic response plans are just one example of the entrepreneurial thinking and social innovation required in public health today.

“The world is full of big and complex public health challenges ranging from the pandemic, to the health of children and families, to gender, race and income-based health inequities, to the effectiveness and sustainability of our health-care systems. Many of these challenges are resistant to common public health strategies,” says Stelfox.

Other examples of social innovation work by O’Brien Institute members include:

Investigating drone delivery of medical supplies to remote communities

Many remote communities in Canada do not have easy access to medical testing centres and supplies, making them especially vulnerable during a pandemic.

To respond to this need, researchers at the W21C Research and Innovation Centre, O’Brien Institute, the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, Alberta Health Services, and Alberta Precision Laboratories are partnering with the Stoney Nakoda Nations to deliver medical equipment and test kits for COVID-19 to remote areas, and to connect these communities to laboratories more quickly using these remotely piloted aircraft. Learn more.

Preventing youth homelessness

Each year, about 40,000 Canadians under the age of 24 will experience homelessness. Dr. Katrina Milaney, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences, is working with researchers, youth shelters in Alberta and Ontario, and youth and their families to identify the best methods to prevent youth homelessness, such as facilitating re-connection with family.

Findings will inform the development of a prevention and diversion program model for youth experiencing homelessness, including a toolkit that can be implemented in youth shelters across Canada.  

Supporting a harm reduction approach for people who use drugs

Street CCRED, which operates with support from the O’Brien Institute for Public Health, and in partnership with many community service providers, is working with West Side Harm Reduction to provide harm reduction training for staff in two new Calgary permanent supportive housing programs for youth and adults.

The buildings provide supportive, affordable housing for Calgary's most vulnerable, including individuals living with disabilities, mental illness, or addiction. The training is specifically aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use. Learn more about the Triveri House and the James House.

Learn more about how Street CCRED is supporting community agencies during COVID-19.

Strengthening COVID-19 response in long-term care

Dr. Bonnie Lashewicz, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences, and Dr. Zahra Goodarzi, MD, an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine, are evaluating promising COVID-19 interventions for residents and workers in long-term care facilities.

A team led by Goodarzi and Dr. Jayna Holroyd-Leduc, MD, both members of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health and the HBI, at the CSM, are working to improve palliative care for vulnerable older adults. 

Researchers led by Lashewicz, a member of the O’Brien Institute, together with Dr. Lorraine Venturato, PhD, a member of the HBI, are working to identify solutions to protect the mental health of long-term care workers during this crisis. Learn more

Jayna Holroyd-Leduc is a professor within the departments of Medicine and Community Health Sciences at the CSM.

Lorranine Venturato is an associate professor with a Chair in Gerontology in the Faculty of Nursing.

Celebrate social innovation with UCalgary

Social innovation is uncovering new solutions to global, social and environmental problems. Increase your social impact — check out a week of social innovation activities at UCalgary from March 15-19 to celebrate the launch of the new UCeed Social Impact Fund