Collaborative research helps communities reach their healthiest potential

The Centre for Healthy Communities is tackling complex social problems that will positively impact public health outcomes for all Canadians.

Canadian communities are rapidly changing due to environmental, economic, technological, societal, and innovative shifts. The Centre for Healthy Communities, housed in the School of Public Health, works with governments, organizations, and communities to generate and support knowledge that enables community action to address the root causes of ill health and enhance wellbeing. They also collect accurate data and research the effects of these factors on our communities to inform the best infrastructure, program, and policy mix to maximize health outcomes and address systemic inequities that create unfair conditions and unequal opportunities for health.

“Creating a strong and vibrant Canada for future generations presents one of the greatest challenges of our time. Our communities, provinces and nation are evolving at a rapid pace, with new opportunities and challenges rising continually,” said Candace Nykiforuk, Director of the Centre and Associate Dean (Research and Research Programs) at the School of Public Health.

With a focus on prevention and systems thinking, the Centre is tackling these complex social problems that will positively impact a myriad of public health outcomes for all Canadians.

Powerful partnerships

Enacting change at a community level requires multidisciplinary research and partnerships to address the root causes of complex issues.

“We really want to do things differently and that includes working across sectors instead of within sectors,” said Nykiforuk.Collaboration is key to enacting change. We are taking a public health stance and seeing how different sectors can work together.”

The Centre, which was established in 2017, grew from the former Centre for Health Promotion Studies. It has since expanded to include scientists with a broad range of disciplinary backgrounds. It operates from the understanding that health occurs outside of the healthcare system. They leverage collaborative relationships with government, municipalities, community organizations, non-governmental organizations and nonprofits, Indigenous organizations, and the private sector to address complex health issues facing communities.

The Centre also includes practice affiliates that work in various fields in professional practice or policy. Practice affiliates bring a diverse range of knowledge and experience to the Centre.

“At the Centre, we work directly with partners that have a vested interest in creating healthy communities. We have also created strong networks with partners in the community that are crucial for success,” said Nykiforuk. “We bring together different groups of people with a range of expertise to co-create innovative solutions for the challenges communities face every day.”

The Centre focuses on five thematic areas: healthy municipalities, healthy school communities, health equity, healthy environments, and supporting healthy Indigenous communities.

Research in action

In 2018, the Centre completed a pilot project to assess the accessibility of entranceways along Whyte Avenue, a popular shopping and pedestrian street in Edmonton, Alberta.

The study found that only four per cent of the doorways along Whyte Avenue met provincially established accessibility criteria. For many people who experience mobility-related disabilities, accessing cafés and restaurants would be extremely difficult.

The inability to access places of business, recreation, and leisure can lead to the exclusion and isolation of people with disabilities. Barriers to access that are preventable and impact some groups of people and not others create inequities

The Centre is continuing to look at the issue of accessibility in Edmonton, along with their partners at the City of Edmonton and the city council’s Accessibility Advisory Committee, to make Edmonton a more accessible, equitable, and inclusive place for all.  Nykiforuk believes mobilization of knowledge for every project is the key to the Centre’s success.

“We practice engaged scholarship. We are working with communities to find solutions, as opposed to doing the research in a silo and then telling them what to do. We want to co-create and build capacity.”

Addressing all aspects of health

“Our physical and mental health is dramatically impacted by the health of the communities in more ways than we currently understand,” said Nykiforuk. “As we improve the health of our communities, our physical and mental health will be improved, resulting in a stronger society and less economic drain.”

As the world grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic and research began in various fields, the Centre took a unique approach to examining the societal effects of the pandemic. Rather than looking at the physical aspects of the virus, they looked at a near-universal side effect:  financial strain.

According to the Centre, Canadians experiencing financial strain (the feeling of concern about their ability to meet financial obligations) live in all of our communities and are suffering mental health impacts. COVID-19 has increased the number of people experiencing financial strain due to workplace closures, layoffs, self-isolation, and a declining economy.

“So many people have experienced some level of financial strain as a result of the pandemic,” said Nykiforuk, “It isn’t only about poverty, it is about everybody experiencing the stress of feeling behind and the long-term health and mental health effects of that.”

The project, underway in partnership with Australia’s Centre for Health Equity Training and Research, was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research under their COVID-19 rapid response grants opportunity. The study will be concluding in the spring of 2021 and will result in the development of a public health framework on financial strain, as well as an indicator tool kit relevant to diverse settings and groups internationally.

“We hope that the results of this will not only be applicable to COVID-19, but to other natural disasters or pandemics in the future.”

To learn more about the Centre for Healthy Communities, visit their website. To get the latest news and research findings from the Centre, subscribe to their newsletter.


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