Alumna recognized for efforts to reduce overdose death

"People who are struggling with substance use disorders really are some of the most discriminated against in our society and like everyone else dealing with a health condition, they deserve our compassion and respect."

Rachel Harper - 10 September 2019


Elaine Hyshka (PhD '16), assistant professor, School of Public Health, and scientific director, Inner City Health and Wellness Program, Royal Alexandra Hospital, is one of four University of Alberta Alumni Horizon Award recipients. This award recognizes alumni who have had outstanding professional achievements and/or contributions to their community.

We spoke to Elaine to learn more about her career path, why she chose her research area and her hopes for the future.


Why did you choose a career in academia?

I ultimately decided to pursue a career in academia for two reasons.

As an academic you're free to pursue research in your topic of interest, irrespective of the policy of the day-you can go where the evidence takes you. Academia provides a platform to share the science on contentious social issues, like substance use, and advance the conversation. In my position, I'm lucky to be able to advocate for policies and programs that are compassionate and evidence-based, and help build public understanding and support for these options.

Secondly, academia enables you to influence the next generation of health professionals. Through education, I hope that students will evolve their thinking around substance use and, as professionals, contribute to changing the way we deal with it as a society.


Why did you select your area of research?

In my third year of undergraduate studies, I took a political sociology class where I had the opportunity to study illegal drug policy. At the time, I was pretty naïve and it was shocking to learn that there was a large body of research evidence that indicated that our approach to substance use was not only ineffective, but also often harmful. Yet, no one was acting on that evidence and it seemed unfathomable to me that we weren't using it to reform policy and improve health.

As a result of this, I knew I wanted to work in the area of drug policy. In my opinion, the way we treat people who struggle with substance use represents a huge injustice. I believe that decades from now, if not sooner, we will look back on the way we currently criminalize people who use substances, and it will be a dark period in our history.

People who are struggling with substance use disorders really are some of the most discriminated against in our society and like everyone else dealing with a health condition, they deserve our compassion and respect.


What do you love most about the work you do?

I'm really lucky because I get to work with so many great people and partners. Through these partnerships, we're able to recruit and meaningfully engage people with lived experience of substance use in our research. That, to me, is such a privilege.

Everything we do involves consulting a large community advisory group of people with lived experience of substance use, poverty and/or unstable housing. They really are the ones that drive our research, focus us on new issues that are arising in the community. Working with them helps us understand our data to ensure our interpretations are valid and useful for the community.


What has been the most rewarding moment of your career thus far?

In the current context of the overdose crisis it's really difficult to say that anything has been rewarding. We still have so many people dying preventable deaths, and much more work to do on our policy and program responses.

With that said, the effort to bring supervised consumption services to Edmonton was six years in the making. So when the first site opened at Boyle Street Community Services, and we were able to walk through and see it for the first time with all the community partners that worked so hard to move the site forward, that was pretty special.


Can you tell us about a few of your mentors and their impact on you and your career?

I have had the good fortune to be supported by excellent people throughout my academic and career journey. There are five that immediately come to mind:

  1. Patricia Erickson, retired Senior Scientist, Centre for Addictions and Mental Health
  2. Maria Mayan, Associate Professor, Faculty of Extension, University of Alberta, and Associate Director, Women and Children's Health Research Institute
  3. Cam Wild, Professor, School of Public Health, University of Alberta
  4. Kathryn Dong (MSc '07), Director, Inner City Health and Wellness Program and Addiction Recovery and Community Health Team, Royal Alexandra Hospital, and Clinical Professor, Department of Emergency Medicine, Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, University of Alberta
  5. Ginetta Salvalaggio (MSc '08), Associate Scientific Director, Inner City Health and Wellness Program, Royal Alexandra Hospital, and Associate Professor, Department of Family Medicine, Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, University of Alberta.

I feel very indebted to all of these people, as they have been foundational in my learning. They have taught me to be tenacious and rigorous, showed me how to become a community engaged scholar and have impressed upon me how to do work that's important for science, but also for the people who are impacted by the research.

Now that you're an assistant professor and scientific director, how does it feel to serve as a mentor to students and colleagues?

I am still quite early in my career, and I don't have the accumulation of experience and wisdom that senior faculty members have so it can feel quite daunting sometimes. At the same time, because I recently graduated and competed on the job market, I'm in a unique position to advise students about their options after graduation.

I enjoy connecting master of public health students to practicum opportunities with partners that I work with, or connecting master's or PhD students to projects that are a good fit for them. It's a really enjoyable part of my job, and it makes me so proud when I see our students succeed.


The Horizon Award honours the outstanding achievements of graduates early in their careers. What do you think your greatest career achievement has been so far?

Accolades like the alumni award help affirm I'm moving in the right direction, but ultimately, my biggest achievement has been assembling an amazing research team at the Royal Alexandra Hospital. We really have such a great group of staff and students who are helping advance ideas and work in the area of substance use research.


What is the impact of your work on the general public?

The overdose epidemic in Canada is unprecedented. It's become so acute that it's actually decreasing life expectancy. Any research that we can do that identifies strategies for reducing death is critical. This is not an issue that is going away anytime soon. We need to be studying this area, and advocating very strongly for policies and programs that we know can be effective-supervised consumption services is just one example of that.


What obstacles do you face in your area of research?

An ongoing obstacle we face working in this area is that there is a lot of stigma and discrimination towards people who use drugs or who have substance use disorders. Often, when you're trying to educate around the topic you have to start by breaking down preconceived notions and misinformation.

People who use drugs are our friends, neighbours and members of our family. They're members of our community, and they aren't this "other" population. Sometimes, that is not readily recognized, but we need to open our minds and our hearts to view things differently so we can get the best outcomes for everyone.


If we fast forward 10 years, what do you hope has changed in your field of research and how would you measure success?

I think we need to have a serious look at our approach to drugs in our society. Our present response to substance use is oriented around moral judgement, stigma and criminalization. It's ineffective and often harmful. Instead, we need to take a public health approach that is grounded in reality, science, and reducing harm, and overhaul the way we control illegal drugs.

We really need to be courageous and think through how we can move forward to end prohibition and legally regulate drugs in a way that maximizes public health, doesn't increase demand or use, and reduces the significant amount of harm we're currently seeing.

In the end, success looks like not criminalizing people for their health conditions. My hope is that people who are struggling with substance use will feel that they can access the health care system without fear of judgement and receive evidence-based interventions that give them the strongest possibility of recovery-however they define it.