Researching the Response to COVID-19

Forward thinking researchers examine pandemic activity to prepare for future responses.

Danica Erickson - 14 July 2020

Much of the medical and health-related news in recent months has focussed on efforts to create a COVID-19 vaccine, but for family medicine and primary care health care providers, ensuring the continuation of safe, high-quality care during the pandemic has taken centre stage.  For some, that means ensuring patients have access to care while maintaining safe environments for medical staff and learners, and figuring out how to move teaching activities and events online. For Department of Family Medicine researchers Dr. Neil Drummond, Dr. Jasneet Parmar and Dr. Ginetta Salvalaggio, the pandemic has brought an added dimension to their respective research interests. 

Dr. Ginetta Salvalaggio is a family physician and researcher who has spent a number of years working to improve health care for urban underserved populations in Edmonton. She knows that while navigating the pandemic has been challenging for most Canadians, it has been far more difficult for people already living with poverty, homelessness or addiction: populations which already have significantly fewer resources and supports than the general population. 

Salvalaggio is the associate scientific director of Edmonton’s Inner City Health and Wellness Program. Salvalaggio has been involved in a number of provincial and national research projects focussing on supporting the healthcare needs of urban underserved populations including opioid crisis interventions and community outreach for structurally vulnerable patients with complex needs.

Over the next 12 months, Salvalaggio will be working with researchers from the universities of Alberta, Manitoba and Toronto as well as front line clinicians, patient advisors and policy makers to perform a comparative case study, examining policy and media documents and complementing these with qualitative interviews, to compare the responses of Edmonton, Winnipeg and Toronto in caring for underserved populations during the pandemic. The research findings will be used to identify and improve gaps in care transitions during the pandemic response for underserved populations in cities across Canada.

Dr. Jasneet Parmar, a DoFM faculty member and researcher, knows that family caregivers in Canada were already distressed and burning out long before the pandemic arrived. This is not the result of caregiving itself, but of trying to manage too much care work.  The pandemic increased pressure on family caregivers, who already provide 90% of the care to persons living with frailty, impairments or chronic conditions such as dementia.  

For the last several years, Parmar has led a series of studies focussed on establishing Caregiver Centred Care by preparing healthcare workers and the health care system to be more supportive of family caregivers. Beginning in 2014 with the Supporting Family Caregivers of Seniors and Improving Care and Caregiver Outcomes study, Parmar has brought together health professionals and community members together to collaborate on ensuring the health care system supports caregivers. This has included hosting large-scale symposiums to identify competencies required to provide support to caregivers and the development of resources and tools for healthcare providers to develop skills to support caregivers.

Parmar, with the help of Northern Alberta Academic Family Medicine Fund (NAAFMF), is working with her research team to investigate “how has COVID-19 pandemic affected family caregivers in Alberta”.  This research is one of many pieces of the puzzle of how the healthcare system can help alleviate this overburden by giving practical supportive to family caregivers.

As the Alberta Health Services Chair in Primary Care Research, Neil Drummond, PhD, has led numerous research projects using data to identify areas of improvement for care delivery. Drummond, an epidemiologist, is one of a growing number of researchers using large amounts of data to identify areas of improvement for care delivery. 

He is working with researchers from the University of Calgary, Queens University, the Canadian Primary Care Sentinel Surveillance Network (CPCSSN) and the Primary and Integrated Health Care Innovation Network (PIHCIN) to submit for a CIHR grant to support a project that will collect anonymized data from Canadian EMR records from specific time periods in 2019 and 2020 before and during the COVID outbreak.

Previous data-based research projects Drummond has worked on include the creation of case definitions for chronic diseases such as asthma and COPD, and improving the quality of health records to benefit primary care research and disease surveillance. The data specific to this project will be used to examine how the epidemic impacted the management of primary care in Canadian practices specific to the treatment of a select group of chronic diseases.

This work will be used to encourage the continuation of the use of technology in primary care practice during the pandemic. The research results might also reveal collateral impact in areas such as reductions in cancer screening, helping primary care providers to better respond to later phases of the current epidemic or future health crises.

Thanks to these three researchers and their colleagues, healthcare providers will have greater insight into how to provide the best care possible, even during the worst possible time.