How DLSPH is leveraging big data to address health inequity

April 13/2016

I would like to thank everyone who attended the General Faculty Meeting on March 8, 2016 at which I gave my first State of the School address.  Following my presentation, David Henry gave a talk entitled: Changing Landscape of Population Health Data in Ontario.

Big data for Population Health is one of the Faculty’s strategic transdisciplinary initiatives, along with Healthier Cities and Communities, Public Health and Primary Care Integration, Global Health and Indigenous Health. Let me share with you, from my perspective, why big data matters for public health and how our Faculty is assuming a leadership role in this burgeoning area of research.

I’ve written about big data in previous Dean’s Messages (see page two of the April 2014 eBulletin) not only because is excites me as an epidemiologist, but also because it’s an emerging tool that can shed light on health inequities that exist locally and globally.

In this month’s DLSPH Student Blog [hyperlink to blog post], you’ll read about the first-hand experience of four health promotion students and alumni who are working with people and communities that are struggling to overcome social disadvantages that negatively impact their health. Addressing the health inequities that result from issues related to housing, gender, race and socioeconomic status, among other factors, are at the very core of public health science education.  I am incredibly proud of these students for writing about their challenges, translating classroom knowledge into community practice and I urge you to read their blog post.

Their reflections are aligned with what all public health professionals have long understood about the impact of social determinants on health, yet governments and authorities are slow to develop policy that mitigates their effects.


One part of the answer is a lack of data.  Last fall, Associate Professor Arjumand Siddiqi wrote a compelling article that explained how Canada’s public institutions — schools, hospitals and social service providers — don’t methodically collect race-based data. She underlined the need for more information to understand what is happening in our society in order to influence change in our educational, banking and medical systems that can help reduce inequities.

More and more, governments are turning to public health professionals to help them make evidence-based policy decisions. This is where our Faculty can have a tremendous impact in Ontario, and perhaps even set an example for Canada and beyond.

Now that the context is set for why public health professionals should care about big data, enter  David Henry, who, in his presentation, discussed the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences’ (ICES) expanding data reserve and improved access, data sets with unique governance and plans for a Data Safe Haven.

One unique question that Professor Henry posed during his presentation is: What are the impacts of growing inequities in health outcomes, and how can we use data to understand, trace and find social and biological explanations?

Based on ICES’s massive data sets — which include hospitals, long-term care homes, cancer registries and geographical data among others, — researchers, led by Assistant Professor Laura Rosella demonstrated that inequity trends in Ontario have grown in the last 20 years. With this evidence, scientists are examining how this translates into increasing healthcare delivery costs and the widening mortality gap, which in turn will influence policy change.

Further, with new resources — such as new data sets on Aboriginal populations that ICES has developed in collaboration with Aboriginal community partners through unique agreements on governance and ownership — ICES is poised to dramatically expand its work into areas of huge relevance to health inequities.

Henry is working with IHPME Professor Geoff Anderson  to create a university-wide Big Data for Population Health hub that will use evidence from big data research to help policy-makers make informed decisions that improve population health and health systems.  This transdisciplinary unit is in the planning stages and I look forward to sharing more information about how you can get involved, including those involved in quantitative research and data science as well as qualitative researchers who can bring vital perspectives and approaches to understanding what the data means and (what may be missing).

Click here to listen to the State of the School address, which includes an overview of the new Big Data for Population Health transdisciplinary unit and many others, and is available on the DLSPH website under the Dean’s Corner.


Howard Hu