Sept. 4, 2019

Town hall sparks outpouring of ideas on ways to improve child health

Researchers brainstorm on emerging Child Health and Wellness initiative
child on swing
The June town halls were among the largest at the university to address child health and wellness. Myles Tan, Unsplash

More than 500 researchers. Five town halls. Nineteen top-notch presentations. Fifty flipcharts. That’s what it took to spark big ideas for the emerging Child Health and Wellness initiative. Scientists and clinicians from across the University of Calgary, Alberta Health Services and the community came to propose creative research solutions for making a real difference in the lives of children. The series of thoughtful, engaged discussions was one of the largest ever held at the university to address child health and wellness.

“We are extremely grateful to everyone who came to a town hall, participated online or submitted ideas digitally,” says Dr. Susa Benseler, MD, PhD, director of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) and university lead of the initiative. “We have a tremendous opportunity here to take a 360 degree approach from prevention and promotion to bridging the gap between discovery and better treatments for children and families.”

In February 2019, the Office of the Vice-President (Research) announced that Child Health and Wellness had been selected as one of two emerging cross-cutting research themes to receive support to develop their program. The goal of the Child Health and Wellness initiative is to partner with the community to accelerate interdisciplinary, discovery-based research in child health and translate that new knowledge into innovative programs to have a direct impact on the lives of children locally, across Canada and around the world.

“We have an outstanding community of researchers already doing exceptional work on improving outcomes for kids and families,” says Benseler. “Our emerging initiative allows us to foster new partnerships and collaborations to transform child health and wellness.”

Participants at the town halls shared their vision of how to drive science and have a lifelong impact on the health of children and families:

  • “We need to ensure that research is sensitive to all cultures, gender, sex and race, and to build diversity into all research models,” said Dr. Kathy McCoy, PhD, scientific director of the International Microbiome Centre at the University of Calgary, while facilitating a town hall discussion on brain development, function and mental health.
  • “We need to be sensitive in this process, and not decide upon the interventions, but instead consult with communities and micro-communities so that they are part of the decision making,” said Dr. Lianne Tomfohr-Madsen, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology who engaged with researchers on how to create better supports for families with premature infants. Alberta has the highest rate of pre-term birth in the country.
  • “If we connect across the continuum of care, we can stimulate new ideas, address grand challenges and make a difference,” said Dr. Shelly Russell-Mayhew, PhD, professor in counselling psychology from the Werklund School of Education, at the town hall on big data and social determinants of child health and wellness. Russell-Mayhew’s research includes obesity, eating disorders, body image and weight-bias in schools and health-care settings.
  • “Neurotechnologies are helping children with brain injuries realize their full potential. Even children with the most severe physical disabilities unable to walk, talk, or use their hands are finding they can now communicate and have new ways to interact with their environment,” said Dr. Adam Kirton, MD, the head of the Calgary Paediatric Stroke Program, outlining the potential of technology.
  • Speaking to precision child health, Dr. Richard Walker, MD, head of the Department of Radiology, challenged researchers to consider data from everyone. “Big data can change life trajectories if it is used comprehensively and engages all of our communities.”  

The full presentations are available online (CAS login required). Town hall discussions and 60 identified grand challenges are now being synthesized using qualitative thematic analysis. “Each step of the initiative is about enhancing partnerships and building on the university’s collective research strengths,” says Benseler. 

“As we continue developing our strategy, we know the broader community is keen to partner with us in this initiative. We are looking forward to hearing from families, agencies and community leaders about their grand challenges.”