Community health is focus of new Canada Research Chair

by Beth Haysom

Healthy eating and lifestyle advice is falling on the wrong ears, says Dr. Aleck Ostry, who joins the University of Victoria this month as the Canada Research Chair on the Social Determinants of Community Health.

“Educated, well-off people can afford to change their habits, but people with low incomes and low education tend to have more difficulty making those healthy changes,” says Ostry, who has spent the better part of his career investigating the social and economic factors underlying health, and the damaging health effects of poverty and lack of education.

“This is one area (of research) that has been ignored for too long,” says Ostry, a Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research scholar and, until recently, an associate professor of health care and epidemiology at the University of British Columbia.

“Greater awareness may lead to a shift in public policy… and addressing inequalities will make a significant impact in terms of healthier people and healthier communities,” he says.

Ostry is a Tier 2 chair recipient, which means he is an “exceptional emerging researcher who is acknowledged by his peers as having the potential to lead in his field.” The chair provides him with $100,000 annually for five years.

While at UVic, using census data, surveys and interviews, Ostry will examine the underlying factors that make up a strong community social fabric and how these differ between urban and rural communities. He’ll also research what happens to a community and its support networks when it gets an economic blow, such as a mill closing, and assess how the current accelerated pace of economic change is affecting individuals of all ages.

Ostry’s research complements work already underway at UVic, which has become a leader in community-based health research through the faculties of Human and Social Development, Science, Social, Sciences and Education and in the interdisciplinary research centres in aging, community health promotion, youth and society, addictions and Aboriginal people’s health.

“I’m looking forward to developing a multidisciplinary approach,” says Ostry, who is based in UVic’s geography department.

Ostry expects to continue collaborating with leading health researchers in other regional universities. He is director of a Canadian Institutes of Health Research “New Emerging Team,” funded by a $1.5 million grant to promote research on the social dimensions of community health in BC. It involves partnerships with scholars at UBC, Thompson Rivers University and the University of Northern British Columbia.

Ostry has also developed international research partnerships with the School of Population Health at the University of Melbourne.

“Canada is something of a world leader in the social determinants of health,” says Ostry, who regularly travels throughout North America and overseas to promote greater awareness of his projects.

Another aspect of Ostry’s health research is work balance and the effects of workplace stress. “Unfortunately, I don’t practise what I preach enough,” says Ostry, who is looking forward to redressing the balance by kayaking, hiking and exploring Victoria-area mountains.

To date, UVic has been awarded 34 Canada Research Chairs out of its total allocation of 35.

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