$18 million to be put to good use

By Chris Beauchamp

Consultations are underway to determine what form the University of Calgary’s new Markin Institute for Public Health will take.

“We’re not wasting any time,” said U of C President Harvey Weingarten. “Health care is a top priority for Canadians. We not only want to help the sick but keep people healthy.”

The institute, which was made possible by an $18 million donation by Allan Markin, Chairman of Canadian Natural Resources Limited, will incorporate six multidisciplinary research chairs and focus on health promotion.

“The institute will focus on disease prevention and promotion of health through understanding health issues on the population level,” explained Dr. Penny Hawe, the Markin Chair in Health and Society in the Faculty of Medicine. “This can’t just be the monopoly of a single discipline.”

Public health reaches beyond just traditional medicine, incorporating research from disciplines in the social sciences, kinesiology, medicine, and engineering. Socio-economic status is the biggest indicator of health condition on a macro scale, said Dr. Hawe, emphasizing the importance of lifestyle choices in health status. She said that researching the rates of disease in specific population groups can lead to a greater understanding of the underlying causes of poor health.

“Giving people lectures in health doesn’t bring about health outcomes,” said Dr. Hawe, noting that health awareness campaigns have largely outlasted their effectiveness. “What’s required is interventions to change the patterns of epidemics in populations. We need the data for this.”

Although the general goals are clearly defined, the exact structure of the institute is yet to be determined.

“We’re melding things together with what currently exists at the university, what could be done and what we want to see ten years from now,” said Dr. Ron Zernicke, Dean of the Faculty of Kinesiology. Dr. Zernicke has assumed the role of Special Advisor to the President on Health and Wellness, effectively heading up the project in its preliminary stage.

The consultation period will begin the formation of an internal steering committee, made up of members from the key faculties involved. Dr. Zernicke said a director for the institute would likely be hired within a year.

“There are probably 15-20 areas you could have chairs for this institute,” said Dr. Zernicke, noting Dr. Hawe’s current research chair will be the first of those planned for the institute. The remaining five will be added over the course of the next 15 years as the $18 million in funding becomes available.

“The Public Health institute can run quite effectively initially as a virtual one,” he said, adding that a potential plan could involve incorporating the health institute in a “contiguous space” with two of the U of C’s other initiatives, the Institute for Energy, Environment and Economy, and the Institute for Advanced Policy Research.

Dr. Zernicke said there will be further requests for matching funding from the province. He is optimistic about the possibility the institute will be able to offer transdisciplinary degrees such as a Masters in Public Health–currently not available in Canada.

“These are the objectives, but the path needs to be determined,” he said. “We need to find a new model.”

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