Larry Svenson, Director, Alberta Ministry of Health

CARRFS eNews profiles a leading member in each issue. In this issue we profile Larry Svenson, Director, Alberta Ministry of Health.

Larry Svenson, Director, Alberta Ministry of Health.

Larry Svenson, Director, Alberta Ministry of Health.

What is your background?

Oddly enough it is not in epidemiology. While I did take a number of courses in epidemiology, I was trained in psychology with a focus on neuroscience. While an undergraduate, I had a particularly good introductory statistics professor. I approached her with an idea to conduct a survey on campus related to knowledge, attitudes and behaviours related to AIDS. I suggested we replicate a study done at Lakehead University. She agreed and managed to obtain funding. We wrote up the results and had them published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health in 1990.    

Because this was only the second such study in Canada, we were invited to conduct similar surveys with high school students. The University of Alberta used the results to inform a new peer education program that they had set up to try and reduce the risk of HIV/AIDS on campus. The subsequent research we did with high school students led to the St. Albert Protestant School Board voting to place condom vending machines in their High School. This was the first school in Canada to do so. This sequence of events not only provided me with graduate level training as an undergrad, it showed me the value of evidence and how it could drive actions.

What inspired you to become a health professional?

I have always been interested in understanding risk factors for various diseases as well as their temporal and spatial distribution. I wanted to better understand the role of things in the environment and how they interacted with one's biology to kick in the disease process. My hope was that by gaining a better understanding of the factors that increased risk or actually determining factors that were in the causal chain, this information could be used to reduce the burden of illness. I liked the challenge of trying to figure out complex interactions, but always with the desire to discover or shine a light on ways to prevent illness. My interests were primarily related to chronic disease with a special interest in neurological disorders like Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis. 

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

I manage a team for the Alberta Ministry of Health that has responsibility for providing evidence on a range of topics including communicable disease, non-communicable disease, injury, mental health, public health economics, health determinants, risk factors, and other things. Any given day results in needing to consider a diverse set of questions or issues. A lot of time is spent making sure data are available to support analyses that are needed. I also spend a fair bit of time providing updates and advice to senior people in the organization. A large part of the job involves explaining complex issues in simple terms with clear actionable advice. The range of topics makes the job a challenge some days, but also keeps it very interesting. It is not uncommon to be talking about vaccine preventable diseases, infectious disease outbreaks, risk factors for stroke and the burden of injuries all within the same day.

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

It is hard to say if there is one single reason for joining CARRFS. I believe in the enhancement of capacity to collect and use data for preventing disease and promoting health. CARRFS is about just that. How can we ensure the people that need evidence to act have what they need and are informed of the things they may not have thought about? There is also merit to sharing experiences and approaches in a collaborative manner. It helps to not only gain efficiencies, but to elevate the quality and utility of the work.

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

It may be better to ask CARRFS colleagues that question. I guess I would see it as providing advice and context, particularly to newer members. I have been involved in a number of studies and initiatives over the years and without realizing that it became a bit of the holder of corporate memory and historical developments related to surveillance in Canada. I hope that I bring ideas to the table that others find valuable.

What are the future opportunities for the CARRFS?

A big opportunity and challenge for CARRFS will be demonstrating the value of data in improving lives. Getting people excited about data and concerned about disparities and wanting to know how to address issues. CARRFS could simply help share information on surveys and methods, but it could also raise the bar on how data is collected, understood, and used to act. <>

By Jostein Algroy