Gail and David O'Brien

O'Brien Institute for Public Health

Interdisciplinary approach is changing lives around the world

Research institute finds solutions to real public health challenges

Whether it’s tracking the spread of COVID-19, making children’s sports safer or mitigating the growing threat of antibiotic resistance, public health has an impact in almost all areas of society, at a local, national and international level.

For the O’Brien Institute for Public Health, putting the “public” in public health means bringing together an interdisciplinary group of researchers, practitioners and decision-makers to work collaboratively toward two common goals: better health and better health care.

“The Institute brings its members together to deal with real public health challenges that need solutions,” says Dr. Tom Stelfox, the O’Brien Institute’s scientific director. “Our job is to create the research and then to make sure that it actually gets put into practice.”

With more than 500 researchers, policy makers and clinicians as members, the O’Brien Institute is one of seven world-class research institutes at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine. To date, it has produced influential national and international reports, guidelines and protocols, including the annual Raising Canada reports on child well-being, World Health Organization (WHO)-adopted guidelines on antibiotic resistance and WHO-adopted protocols for personal protective equipment (PPE) during COVID-19.

“We take on some of these big, real-world public health challenges and work with partners, from philanthropists, NGOs, city municipalities and ministries of health to the World Health Organization,” Stelfox says. “Some of the challenges are very local, some are international, but even the learnings from solving local problems are likely applicable elsewhere.”

In Calgary, for example, the O’Brien Institute advised city council on public health measures to tackle the coronavirus. It also worked with Alberta Health Services, Alberta Precision Laboratories, the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology and the Stoney Nakoda Nations on a drone project that uses unmanned aerial vehicles to deliver medical equipment and test kits for COVID-19 to remote communities in Alberta. These are examples of local research that could have impacts anywhere in the world.

On the other end of the scale, researchers are also working with global organizations such as the WHO. A group of O’Brien Institute researchers, for example, was one of two teams behind new WHO guidelines restricting the use of antibiotics in livestock in order to reduce antimicrobial resistance, preventing the spread of superbugs in human populations. Based on that analysis, the WHO released guidelines around the use of antibiotics in livestock.

Work conducted by O’Brien Institute researchers as part of a global scientific endeavour — and encompassing the Centers for Disease Control, the WHO and others — has informed international PPE guidelines for health-care settings (and countries) that may not have access to sufficient PPE or decontamination facilities.

The O’Brien Institute for Public Health was named after Canadian philanthropists Gail and David O’Brien in 2014 in recognition of a transformational gift to the Institute. They’ve continued to give generously to the Institute and the university, donating more than $21-million over the years to UCalgary health research and education initiatives.

“Health-care budgets have been taking up approximately 50 per cent of provincial budgets and have grown enormously over the past 10 or 20 years, so we took the view that the health-care system has to become more efficient,” David says. Research happening in Calgary in areas around e-health, telehealth and home care, for example, is helping to make health care more efficient across Canada.

The O’Brien Institute’s research also aims to influence health-care policy. Its annual Raising Canada report, for example, examines the top 10 threats to Canada’s kids. “The results were shocking,” Gail says. “It’s been a wake-up call for Canada.”

When it comes to protecting the well-being of children, UNICEF ranks Canada 30th out of 38 affluent nations. Its latest report outlines how threats faced by Canadian children, from food insecurity to mental illness, are on the rise due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Gail hopes the report will trigger a call to action by governments at every level to create new policies around children’s health and well-being.

“We’re very fortunate to invest in causes that make a difference in other people’s lives,” Gail says. “It helps other people but it also enriches our own lives – hitching your wagon to a cause bigger than yourself.”

And those investments are critical in enabling the O’Brien Institute to do the work that it does, says Stelfox.

“We couldn’t do what we do without the support of Gail and David O’Brien,” he says.

Going forward, the O’Brien Institute is looking to drive new research in areas of growing concern to Canadians. “At a very high level, what we’re doing is sharpening our focus on impact,” Stelfox says. “The pandemic has really reminded us just how fragile our health is.”

In the coming decade, he expects to see more research on health-system performance, aging and health equity. For example, the Canadian population is getting older and more than 60 per cent have a chronic disease needing care, which presents a pressing public health concern.

Stelfox sees UCalgary and the Cumming School of Medicine’s O’Brien Institute playing a vital role at the intersection of society and academia in conducting research that will have a positive impact on public health.

“Our scientists work on public health challenges that need solutions now,” he says. “We provide community partners with information that ultimately results in societal changes in big or little ways that actually impact health.”

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Originally published in the Globe and Mail on March 15, 2021, as sponsored content. Produced by the Globe Content Studio and the University of Calgary.

Tom Stelfox

Dr. Tom Stelfox is the scientific director of the O'Brien Institute for Public Health

What Giving Gives Me

We’re very fortunate to invest in causes that make a difference in other people’s lives. It helps other people, but it also enriches our own lives — hitching your wagon to a cause bigger than yourself.

Gail O'Brien

The O'Brien Institute was named in honour of a visionary gift from Gail and David O'Brien