School welcomes two health system impact postdoctoral fellows

The Health System Impact Fellowship Program hopes to equip postdoctoral fellows with professional experience and skills outside of a traditional scholarly setting.

Rachel Harper - 10 January 2018

The traditional career trajectory for doctor of philosophy (PhD) graduates has been to continue their path in research, mostly in an academic setting. In recent years, PhD graduates are finding themselves working outside of academia in public, private and not-for-profit organizations.

As a result of this shift, the Government of Canada has invested $5.8 million in developing a new model of training for health services researchers. The training was developed by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research - Institute of Health Services and Policy Research and the Canadian Health Services and Policy Research Alliance. It will assist PhD graduates in developing professional experience and skills outside of a traditional scholarly setting.

This funding will support 46 PhD graduates and postdoctoral fellows across Canada through the Health System Impact Fellowship Program. Two recipients-Farah Mawani and Megan Highet-will work as postdoctoral fellows in the School of Public Health.

"Public health is a constantly changing field and, as a result, traditional career paths are fluid," says Kue Young, dean of the School of Public Health. "This initiative is strongly supported by the School of Public Health, and we look forward to welcoming Farah and Megan to our community."


Strengthening health system response to inequities

For Farah Mawani, reducing health inequities isn't just a professional interest, it also has deep personal meaning. So when the opportunity arose to work with Dignitas International and Stephanie Montesanti, assistant professor at the School of Public Health, on the Knowledge Translation Platform for Equity-focused Health Evidence and Research (KT-PEER) Non-Communicable Diseases (NCD) Inequities Initiative it felt like a natural fit.

"As a child, I migrated to Canada from Kenya; I am a racialized woman," explains Mawani. "With my lived experience of inequities at global and local levels and my extensive experience in health inequities research and policy, comes a deep understanding of the experience and impact of exclusion, and the need for inclusion to reduce health inequities. I am committed to building leadership by people with lived experience of exclusion into health system transformation, to ensure effective and lasting change."

KT-PEER provides just such an opportunity for Mawani. The global network is jointly led by Dignitas International and the School of Public Health. It brings together Indigenous, Canadian and global health system leaders from the Global South who focus on knowledge translation and non-communicable diseases. The network aims to improve inclusion and equity within non-communicable disease policy, practice and research.

During her time with the Health System Impact Fellowship Program, Mawani will work closely with network members in Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Uganda and Malawi to strengthen health system response to non-communicable disease inequities for Indigenous, excluded and underserved populations in Canada and globally.

The project's two main goals are to propose global and national level NCD equity indicators, and an inclusive process to develop them.

Mawani explains that in Canada, there are resources for development of data systems and collecting data on the population. Yet, there are limitations in the data systems' design for measuring and monitoring inequities in the determinants and burden of non-communicable diseases, and access to health services.

"Indigenous communities and countries in the Global South are dealing with a greater burden of non-communicable diseases with far fewer resources for their data and health systems," says Mawani.

Through leading her fellowship project, Mawani hopes to respond to these challenges.

"I am excited to learn from the experience and expertise of KT-PEER members to collectively improve our countries' capacities to reduce NCD inequities," says Mawani.

"Globally and within countries, including Canada, there is resistance to leadership of people with lived experience of exclusion and health inequities in health system transformation. KT-PEER offers critical opportunities for support, knowledge exchange and strategizing in the face of this resistance."

Mawani aims to develop a process that includes the leadership and participation of groups experiencing NCD inequities in health system transformation, so that it can be applied in countries, including Canada.

"Health inequities are incredibly harmful," says Mawani. "We need leadership by people most affected by them to reduce them."


Research into action

A postdoctoral fellowship position is not new to Megan Highet. She recently completed a traditional two-year position in knowledge translation for Indigenous health research with the CANHelp Working Group in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Alberta. But a postdoctoral position that focuses on developing professional skills and training for a non-traditional academic career trajectory is a new experience.

"I believe research needs to have an impact in the real world," explains Highet. "This program allows me to build on my previous research experience, develop new skills and then put my research into action. It brings everything full circle."

Highet will be jointly appointed with Alberta Health and with the School of Public Health. With Alberta Health she will be contributing to the new health system reform that Alberta is implementing. She will be drawing on her background in anthropology to document and explore how innovation and transformative change is achieved by leaders of complex health systems. She will be basing this research in thework that is currently being done to implement the primary care network (PCN) governance framework.

She will focus on how the process of health system improvement actually occurs, , and will look at all the moving pieces that need to come together for successful implementation.

"More importantly, I'll be focusing on the human aspect to the new network," says Highet. "I'll be taking a socio-cultural perspective to look at how all the ideas come together, how the people work together and how they understand the work that they're doing. I hope that my work will have an impact on Albertans' health and wellbeing."

During her time with the School of Public Health, Highet will be supervised by Jeff Johnson, professor and associate dean (education) at the School of Public Health. Through him, Highet has expanded her professional network, including being introduced to Susan Chatwood, associate professor at the School of Public Health, and scientific director of the Institute for Circumpolar Health Research (ICHR). Through this connection, Highet will work with ICHR and assist with ongoing research projects. Highet has been working in the North since 2005, where she has focused on building capacity, developing relationships and creating community partnered approaches for health research.

""Globally, we're starting to become more aware of the challenges and health disparities that people are facing in the north," explains Highet. "I hope to help build relationships and develop new connections for northern programs of research for the School."

Additionally, Highet has had the opportunity to participate in the School's Fellowship in Health System Improvement program which has further supported her professional development and research. Through the Fellowship Highet will be creating a model for meaningful community engagement to co-plan the delivery of on-reserve continuing care in partnership with First Nations communities in Alberta.

"Through the School's Fellowship program, I've been able to build a new network of connections across Canada," says Highet. "Connecting with other researchers, fellows, practitioners and health system leaders has allowed me to see all the exciting work that is happening from coast to coast, and to reinforce that change is happening."

"It's reignited renewed passion for this work."