Reflections from a health equity educator
Author Devin Wood (left, with NCCDH Scientific Director Connie Clement) is an MSc student at Carleton University in Ottawa, ON, who worked as the NCCDH’s student health equity educator in July and August 2018.
In this blog post, I offer a reflection on what I learned over the eight weeks I spent working at the National Collaborating Center for Determinants of Health (NCCDH) — an opportunity that allowed me to fulfill my love of research, as well as teach me new things about the inner workings of an organization translating knowledge.
While working there, I was able to get a better understanding of the social determinants of health and health equity. Additionally, I have come to understand the vital role that partnerships with knowledge creators play when ensuring effective product design, and how crucial these partnerships are to creating NCCDH products that communicate these concepts to a wider audience. Overall, the opportunity helped me understand key concepts in public health and the role that networking plays in supplementing the work surrounding these concepts.
Determinants of health
Before starting my work with the NCCDH, I had only taken a few courses on the social determinants of health, with no experience applying them in the real world. During my time there, I came to realize the importance of looking at these factors and the complex web of environmental and societal influences that affect the health of Canadians. I saw how particular determinants of health, such as social status and food availability, impact the people’s health, and how to address these issues through changes to the public health system.
Consideration of the social determinants of health, I learned, helps policies and thinking in public health to be more holistic, emphasizing the importance of influences outside of genetics and biology commonly seen in a medicalized model of health. This consideration also allows for a focus on multiple factors that promote well-being, such as physical, mental and spiritual health. The NCCDH’s emphasis on the determinants of health in its work led me to see this complex and interconnected web of actors, and without such an opportunity, I would have a far less nuanced way of viewing health and well-being.
Reflecting back on when I started, I can see how ignorant I was about the importance of partnerships within the NCCDH and public health in general, especially given that the NCCDH aims to translate knowledge for use by other public health practitioners. Before starting this position, I thought of public health as a mostly monolithic entity, but I have now come to see it as a collection of different groups and people from across Canada and across sectors working together to share and apply their unique knowledge, and how valuable these different experiences are. This diversity necessitates the creation of partnerships that help public health practitioners communicate and to be aware of the most recent and relevant knowledge being produced by other groups.
The NCCDH provides opportunities for such partnerships through its goal of translating knowledge, supplemented by activities such as webinars, which I’ve come to see webinar events as being as important as any research paper. As they are a phenomenal opportunity for the sharing of information between professionals as it’s an environment that encourages discussion and exchange of ideas, which facilitates the creation of relationships between people and groups potentially leading to further partnerships. Without working with experts or other teams like RentSafe, for example, the knowledge generated would not be shared as widely, and public health practitioners would be less informed when making critical decisions, such as policy details or where to focus future research.
Another concept that I learned plays a crucial role in the research and work of the NCCDH is equity. During my time there, I came to appreciate the concept of health equity and now understand the vitalness of using an equity lens when thinking of the ways that public health can understand inequity inside and outside the health system. This lens emphasizes overcoming the inequity some groups experience due to historical prejudices or low socioeconomic status, making these populations unable to live the healthiest lives possible. Ensuring supports for these priority populations is of great importance, as they are more likely to experience health issues due to these past and current inequities.
Without an equity focus within the public health system, the injustices suffered by groups such as Indigenous peoples in Canada and racialized minorities would not be a priority, resulting in these groups’ health risks going unaddressed. Inequity not only harms the health system due to the increased load and cost but also leads to higher stress; it negatively impacts these groups emotionally, physically and spiritually, making it impossible for them to optimize their health outcomes.
Overall, my time with the NCCDH helped increase my knowledge of public health and the importance of addressing the social determinants of health and health equity when doing research and policy. Additionally, the position reaffirmed my interest in working in the Canadian public health sector to help create compelling and evidence-based policies that work towards a future where everyone can achieve the best possible health. As I move forward with my studies in Carleton University’s Master of Science program in Health: Science, Technology and Policy, my experience at the NCCDH will prove invaluable and allow me to apply the knowledge and real-world applications of these concepts that I have learned to my studies