May 9, 2023

Submission to Alberta’s Public Health Emergencies Governance Review Panel

Letter from the O'Brien Institute to the Honourable Ernest Preston Manning, Chair, Public Health Emergencies Governance Review Panel
Alberta’s Public Health Emergencies Governance Review Panel

Following a meeting between the Honourable Ernest Preston Manning, Chair, Public Health Emergencies Governance Review Panel, and the O'Brien Institute directors and public health scientists on March 3, 2023, the below letter was sent outlining recommendations to the panel from the scientific directors of the O’Brien Institute.

Dear Mr. Manning,

It was a pleasure meeting you on March 3 to discuss potential input from the O’Brien Institute for Public Health to your Public Health Emergencies Governance Review Panel. I was gratified to introduce you to several knowledgeable public health scientists, and I am writing now to submit recommendations to the Panel from the Scientific Directors of the O’Brien Institute.

The COVID 19 pandemic reinforced the contention that rigorous scientific evidence is required to inform sound public policy. It was a relevation to many citizens that the scientific process can yield equivocal results that require significant experience to interpret and time to resolve. Our recommendations for governance that will facilitate Alberta’s response to future public health emergencies, below, therefore aim to: expedite the compilation and provision of best evidence to Albertan decision makers; facilitate mutual understanding of complex health information between scientists and decision makers; and communicate complex health information to Albertan citizens.

1. Support a pan-provincial consortium of public health experts, from Alberta’s research-intensive institutions, and engage that consortium to provide regular feedback on emerging public health threats and potential interventions. Note that such a consortium (Campus Alberta Health Outcomes and Public Health) was active in the decade pre-pandemic, and could be reconvened with enhanced purpose. With appropriate support, this consortium could be activated as necessary to conduct unbiased syntheses of huge volumes of evidence, to provide timely and approachable summaries, including policy recommendations targeted to decision makers. Through the broad networks of consortium members, they could be charged with representing a broad diversity of perspectives and disciplines.

2. Create a public health roundtable to facilitate regular communication between representative science experts and government policy makers. Quarterly or semi-annual discourse would help build a trusting relationship among members of the roundtable during times of non-emergency, which could be leveraged effectively when needed. Policy makers in the roundtable could share their knowledge of government concerns, plans, and priorities; scientist members could share their own expertise, complemented by synthesized input from the pan-provincial consortium, including emerging evidence from public health surveillance. It could be valuable to ‘imbed’ scientists in relevant Ministries, fostering regular interactions with government staff and decision makers.

3. Support the dissemination of evidence-informed public health messaging to Albertans, in collaboration with the province’s research-intensive institutions. Scientists are invested in optimizing the translation of health evidence into societal benefit, and understand that citizen engagement is essential for societal change. Harmonized approaches to citizen outreach -- through lay summaries, infographics, webinars, public events, advertising, etc – could enhance the reputation of research-intensive institutions as trusted sources of information, and help the government improve the effectiveness of its response during public health emergencies.

We hope the Panel will consider these suggestions, and look forward to contributing to Alberta’s improved governance for public health emergencies.

Thomas Stelfox, MD, PhD, FRCPC, FCAHS
Scientific Director, O’Brien Institute for Public Health

Katrina Milaney,
Associate Scientific Director, Population Health

Kirsten Fiest,
Associate Scientific Director, Health Systems
Jamie Day, PhD
Administrative Director

CC The Honourable Danielle Smith, ECA, MLA, Premier of Alberta
The Honourable Jason Copping, ECA, MLA, Minister of Health
Dr. Todd Anderson, MD, Dean, Cumming School of Medicine