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Daniel Harris: Using a PhD in Epidemiology to Support Nursing Home Residents

November 7/2022

By Françoise Makanda

Daniel Harris will graduate with a PhD in Epidemiology at the November convocation. The American-born graduate got more than he bargained for when he first set his sights on a PhD in Canada studying antipsychotics among older people.

“DLSPH is an exceptional institution and resource-rich,” says Harris who defended his thesis online in front of his supervisor, Dr. Susan Bronskill, Senior Scientist at ICES and Assoc. Prof at DLSPH, and Dr. Donovan Maust of Michigan State University.

Daniel Harris

“With the number of faculty and degree of student excitement and talent, I think if you’re interested and motivated, it can really take you anywhere.”

Harris’ thesis explored the unintended consequences of efforts to reduce antipsychotics among nursing home residents. Along with that reduction, researchers have observed an uptick in the use of antidepressants and anticonvulsants.

As people age, chronic conditions accumulate – often leading to complex medication regimes. Harris argues that assessing and balancing the risks and benefits of medications is critical, especially among older adults. Antidepressants and other psychiatric medications are commonly prescribed to residents of nursing homes. He picked this topic for his thesis because prescribing in nursing homes remains an ongoing challenge.

“Medications can also be modified,” he states, “whereby small changes in someone’s medication regime can have big health impacts.”

The Dalla Lana School of Public Health was an easy choice for Harris for its high ranking in public health research and reputation. Ontario is also equipped with data sources for pharmaco-epidemiologic research: the provincial health system regularly collects clinical and medication-prescribing information on all nursing home residents.

“Ontario is exceptionally well-positioned to conduct population-based research on medication use in nursing homes. From a mentorship perspective, my advisor Dr. Bronskill, could not have been a better fit,” he says. “She is an internationally recognized leader in health services research and the use of health administrative data.”

Harris wanted to broaden his network and study in a different health system. “And of course, living in Toronto, the largest city in Canada for four years, was a great place to live. It was such a joy.”

His PhD was only but a part of his academic journey. Harris used what DLSPH had to offer, and his engagement paid off. While DLSPH professors played a very visible role in Ontario’s COVID response, Harris found no shortage of demand for epidemiology skills in the public health job market and academia.

“During my PhD, we found opportunities to study the impact of COVID-19 on prescribing among nursing home residents. Even though I’m not an infectious disease epidemiologist, the skills that I learned [as an epidemiologist] grew in demand and continue today.”

The pandemic thwarted a lot of the social experience that comes with the PhD life, leaving Harris with fewer connections to industry leaders. Still, he doesn’t regret his last two years online. Instead, he found himself working on a range of other studies and projects outside of his research focus.

In his time at DLSPH, Harris co-wrote academic letters challenging findings from prominent papers with other students. He co-founded DLSPH’s first student academic journal, the University of Toronto Journal of Public Health, a DLSPH-wide student journal publishing papers on diverse issues like racism in public health, poverty and employment.

He also completed a concentration in artificial intelligence and data science, competed in data science case competitions with his peers, and even completed Rotman’s Mini MBA program.

Now, as a Research Scientist at Brown University, Harris works on COVID-19 vaccine safety and effectiveness research among older adults, providing more guidance for nursing home residents.

“Our values as a society are not often anchored by the needs and interests of older adults,” says Harris. “So, I feel as though being actively engaged in research that studies topics and issues that are important to older adults, their families and caregivers work to elevate the true importance of this area.”