UBC: Building healthier communities

Affordable prescription drugs. Reducing air pollution. Global food security. Infectious disease control. Harm reduction among youth. Equitable access to health care.

The team at UBC’s Faculty of Medicine’s School of Population and Public Health (SPPH) tackle society’s greatest health challenges. They work across disciplines to understand the world we live in, allowing for the translation of discovery into action.

“We translate our work into solutions that make people better off, increase life expectancy, reduce illness and disability, save society money and improve the quality of life across the whole lifespan,” says Peter Berman, director of SPPH.

Throughout its ten-year history, the school has built a strong reputation for sought-after experts, while at the same time, training the next generation of passionate public health advocates. It operates with the mandate to find the causes of disease and health issues, and to search for solutions, in both local and global communities.

“We can bring in different scientific perspectives to ask the right questions,” say Berman. ‘What is important? What causes the problems that we observe and also what kinds of changes are needed to bring about improvements in the health of populations?’”

Research and impact

Michael Law, associate professor and Canada Research Chair in Access to Medicines in the Centre for Health Services and Policy Research, focuses his work on pharmaceutical policy, including prescription drug affordability, evaluating pharmaceutical policy changes, and generic drug pricing.

“The value of our work is in the practical applications to build healthier communities,” Law says. “I examine access to, and the use of, prescription drugs and make recommendations on how government policy changes will benefit the well-being of communities, both in Canada and abroad.”
“The value of our work is in the practical applications to build healthier communities.”

One of Law’s latest studies detailed that many Canadians cannot afford their prescription drugs, with the goal of informing improvements in public health coverage and to assess where people are falling through the cracks.

Law also regularly supervises and mentors graduate students, and works with them on policy evaluation, both in Canada and internationally.

“Supervising students energizes me,” Law says. “I enjoy working with students from around the world who choose to study at SPPH and helping them develop research projects that can make a difference.”

Educating beyond boundaries

The reach of SPPH stretches far beyond the bounds of British Columbia. Students from across the globe train at the school with the goal of improving the well-being of Canadians and citizens internationally.

Marie Paul Nisingizwe is completing her PhD in Population and Public Health. She is evaluating the mass screening and treatment program for the hepatitis C virus implemented in her home country of Rwanda. Nisingizwe’s research project is in collaboration with the Rwandan Ministry of Health and will inform its national policy.

“Rwanda is a developing country and we still have fewer people trained in health services research or epidemiology methods, so I feel that I will be in a better position to contribute to my country after this program,” she says.
“I feel that I will be in a better position to contribute to my country after this program.”

While working toward her comprehensive examinations, Nisingizwe is grateful for the opportunity the program has provided.

“The program has allowed me to do studies that are based on the community needs by involving stakeholders, community, and policymakers,” she says. “It helps students to use methods and theories to transform people’s lives.”

Nisingizwe’s classmate Mohammad Karamouzian is also working toward his PhD in Population and Public Health with a focus on reducing the high risk of preventable death among opioid users. His thesis seeks to determine how individual and structural factors – from childhood traumas to homelessness – shape injection drug use among youth. His project is part of the Vancouver Injection Drug Users Study at the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use.
“There is a real emphasis on knowledge translation to the community.”

“At SPPH there is a specific focus on asking the relevant question to the community and then there is a real emphasis on knowledge translation to the community and the knowledge users,” he says.

After completing his dissertation, Karamouzian hopes to work on informing and improving Canadian public health policies in the field of mental health and addiction.

Moving forward

Ten years after its creation, SPPH has made great strides in contributing to innovations to address pressing health challenges.

The latest addition to the SPPH family is the Centre for Excellence in Indigenous Health (CEIH) created in 2014 as a single point of contact within UBC for support, training and resources for Indigenous health. The recently added Certificate and Graduate Certificate in Indigenous Public Health Program — the first of its kind in Canada — aims to equip participants with the skills needed to address public health issues in Indigenous communities.

“I really enjoy sitting with Elders and Knowledge Keepers, working with students across different programs and with community partners towards change and improved relationships,” says Leah Walker, associate director of education at CEIH.

Moving forward, Berman says his vision for the school’s future is to expand upon its strong foundation of education and research. Building on UBC’s objective to address global and local health disparities is central at SPPH.

And as we continue to see the health impacts of climate change affecting the world’s most vulnerable populations — whether it’s the effects of forest fires in our local communities or a rise in infectious diseases around the world — never has there been a more critical time for this work to be done.

“I am a strong believer in a term I call ‘glocal,’ combining the impact of global and local public health,” Berman says. “Much of the work we do here in B.C. can benefit others in the world, and there are also things others can teach us, that can improve the health of communities here at home.”


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