Breathing life into lung research

Faculty member named one of Edmonton's "Top 40 Under 40"

Amy Hewko - 27 November 2013

Michael Stickland

He's young, he's saving lives and now he's one of Edmonton's top 40.

Avenue Edmonton magazine recently named Michael Stickland ('04 PhD) one of their "Top 40 Under 40". He won his place on the list for his work with patients suffering from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD), a long-term lung disease that largely affects people, specifically smokers, over 40 years of age.

Equipped with a PhD in heart and lung physiology and exercise, Stickland is an associate professor in the Division of Pulmonary Medicine and director of the Centre for Lung Health (Covenant Health). His research and clinical appointments allow him to explore both facets of pulmonary health.

"It's fun because I get to do the research and also see the effects it has on the patients," he said. "A lot of the work that we're doing is not only, for example, looking at how exercise and rehabilitation improves functional status and quality of life in patients, but it's also helping to keep them out of hospitals."

Pulmonary complications are the top reason for hospitalization in Alberta and, once admitted, patients may stay for up to 11 days. Managing the ailment and rehabilitation are key to keeping patients out of the hospital.

The most recognized piece of Stickland's clinical work is the rehabilitation program he directs through the Centre for Lung Health. Patients learn how to recognize lung flare-ups, how to identify triggers, how to manipulate their medications to best respond to those identifiers, and other management skills. With the help of Alberta Health Services Telehealth, these classes are also broadcast to rural Alberta, offering easier access for patients in remote locations.

COPD management, including the rehabilitation classes, relies heavily on exercise. Patients often shy away from physical activity because of their reduced lung function but taking brisk walks twice a day can be the difference between good and poor health.

"The Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines says you should take 10,000 steps each day," Stickland said. "Coming into rehabilitation, our patients get about 2,500 steps per day, and some get less than that."

The sedentary lifestyle affects more than lung function: cardiovascular disease is the number one killer in patients with COPD. More people die from heart problems caused by years of deferring physical activity than from the pulmonary complications that kept them on the couch.

"A person [in rehabilitation] is more active more often. That's one of the things we've shown," he said. "Rehab makes you less out of breath and gives you better exercise tolerance but, under the right conditions, it will also make you more active, and that makes your cardiovascular system better."

Evidence from Stickland's research shows that patients who engage in rehabilitation are hospitalized less often and for shorter periods of time than other COPD patients. Not only is this saving the health-care system millions of dollars, it's also saving Albertans' hearts. Inactivity causes deterioration of the cardiovascular system, so those week-long hospital stays can be costly for idle COPD patients. Stickland is currently working on a study funded by Alberta Innovates - Health Solutions to examine the effects of hospitalization and continuity of care on the cardiovascular system.

"It leads back to the disease management side. If we can get these patients active and get them walking a couple times a week, that will really improve their cardiovascular condition and reduce their cardiovascular risk," he said.

Each year, hundreds of Edmontonians are nominated to Avenue magazine's "Top 40 Under 40". Two other members of the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry were also included in the 2013 list. Congratulations to Dhiren Naidu, an associate professor in the Division of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, and Abraham Nunes, an MD/MBA student.