Ruth Sanderson, Manager, Public Health Ontario

CARRFS eNews profiles a leading member in each issue. In this issue we profile Ruth Sanderson, Manager, Public Health Ontario.

What is your background?

I have 20 years of experience in public health, primarily working as a public health epidemiologist in Ontario, with a master of science in Community Health and Epidemiology from Queen’s University.  I’ve worked at the local level in many different settings including rural, northern and urban public health units, as well as within Ontario’s Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. For the past five-and-a-half years I’ve been with Public Health Ontario (PHO), first as a chronic disease epidemiologist and more recently as the manager of Analytic Services. 

What inspired you to become an epidemiologist?

I wish I could say I always wanted to be a public health epidemiologist but it was really a confluence of disparate events that led me to learn about epidemiology, and, eventually, to work as a public health epidemiologist. Honestly, I had not heard of epidemiology until my third year as an undergraduate student at Trent University. I was studying biology and anthropology at the time and while I enjoyed learning about biology and its role in health, I was keenly interested in the influence of culture and society on a population’s health. My anthropology professor, Dr Joseph So, who recognized my interest, suggested I explore epidemiology as an approach to population health. In 1987, I finished my undergraduate program and was selected to participate in the World University Services of Canada’s (WUSC) International Research Seminar in Zimbabwe. The WUSC Seminar was a tremendous opportunity for me to witness the impact of a rapidly changing society, and the intricate influence of traditional culture and government policy, on the population’s health.

My first real career-oriented job involved co-ordinating the local “practice” arm of an early policy, practice and research initiative aimed at improving the life chances of children in the Peterborough area. Dr Dan Offord, the developer of the Early Development Instrument, was the lead scientist for the research arm, so you can imagine the quality of the effort. Overnight the core funding for the organization that held the project’s funding ceased with the provincial government cut-backs in 1995.  We moved the project to the local public health unit. At the end of the project, I knew much more about the formal public health system in Ontario and it seemed logical to transition into the role of public health epidemiologist.

What do you spend the most time on in your current position?

As the manager of Analytic Services at the PHO, I work with a team of eleven specialists with skills in analytics, biostatistics, epidemiology and geospatial analysis. We play a key role in supporting PHO’s strategic efforts to accelerate integrated population health monitoring. This  helps us deliver on our mandate to provide scientific and technical advice and support to clients working in government, public health, healthcare and related sectors. My work at PHO has involved finding ways to analyse and communicate the population health assessment and surveillance information that we already have in new and innovative ways. Last April we released a set of ten population health assessment stories on important public health topics as infographics, and we are currently preparing to release interactive web reports on the same topics.

What was your motivation to become a member of the CARRFS?

When I first heard about CARRFS in 2008 there was little doubt in my mind that I would join. One of the strengths of working as a public health epidemiologist in Ontario is the atmosphere of mutual learning through groups like the Association of Public Health Epidemiologists in Ontario (APHEO) and PHO. CARRFS offered an opportunity to learn about what was working related to regional risk factor assessment and surveillance from colleagues across Canada, and it really fosters an environment of mutual learning.

How do you see the current role of the CARRFS in Canada today?

CARRFS is uniquely positioned to connect public health professionals from across the country who understand that chronic disease risk factor surveillance is a tool to assist them in improving the health of their local communities. The CARRFS website provides a “go to” place for accumulated knowledge and other information sharing. 

What are the future opportunities for the CARRFS?

CARRFS has a chance to shine the light where the keys really are - that is to say with upstream risk factor surveillance. There are three broad opportunities that I would highlight for CARRFS:

(1) Support workforce capacity: CARRFS is uniquely positioned to connect people interested in chronic disease risk factor surveillance, and advance the practice of assessment and surveillance generally across Canada. For example, surveys are the backbone of risk factor surveillance, yet most of us are concerned about the future of traditional surveys – even approaches using more than one mode of data collection (e.g., phone, cell phone, email and paper) may not keep the traditional population health survey approach viable in the long-term. CARRFS can foster innovation within its network to help risk factor surveillance embrace new approaches to monitoring, so that when game changing ideas come knocking we have receptor capacity to act quickly.

(2) Focus on all components of the surveillance cycle: Data collection is a key component of risk factor surveillance but there are other components of the surveillance cycle that are in need of our collective attention such as analysis and dissemination.

(3) Consider expanding risk factors across the spectrum of public health outcomes: Chronic disease risk factor surveillance embraces the idea that human behaviour has a great deal of impact on population health. This notion has successfully led public health to consider upstream action for chronic disease prevention. I think CARRFS can use this success to steer more public health surveillance efforts towards upstream exposure and risk factor surveillance. For example, large surveillance gaps exist for environmental health exposure data - and while infectious disease surveillance has a good system for tracking new cases, it could benefit from an increased focus on risk and protective factor surveillance. <>

By Jostein Algroy