Using equity-focused knowledge translation to improve children’s health equity

In the summer of 2012, the Centre of Environmental Health Equity (CEHE) convened a workshop in Vancouver on children’s health equity in collaboration with CPCHE. The one-week session, supported by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR), brought together 20 participants from the worlds of health research, health promotion and health policy for training in equity-focused knowledge translation.

“It’s a different kind of philosophy for doing research that takes the researcher out of the ivory tower, out of the hierarchy, so that rather than thinking that my research will inform someone else’s knowledge, it’s really another way altogether, their knowledge informs the research we do together,” explains Scott Venners, an epidemiologist from Simon Fraser University, who was one of the participants.

Scott’s research investigates the effects of environmental pollution on chronic disease, with a particular focus on issues of health and equity across different populations in Canada.

“We rank people in terms of the levels of environmental pollutants we find in their blood and urine samples and then see if that exposure is associated with some kind of health outcome,” says Scott. “There are certain sub-groups of Canadian society – vulnerable populations – that have worse health outcomes, and that’s where the idea of equity comes in, because those worse health outcomes in those sub-populations are preventable and they’re unjust.”

Scott’s research looks at all age groups, but children are of particular concern.

“That may be the period of our lives when we’re most susceptible to environmental pollutants because there are so many things happening,” says Scott. “Cells are dividing, cells are differentiating, they’re growing, they’re creating all these new cells. There’s a lot of hormonal signalling going on, and sometimes environmental pollutants can look like estrogen to our body, or androgen, causing our bodies to get the signal wrong, to miscue,” he says.

The Knowledge Leaders trainees formed small sub-groups that would apply the equity-focused knowledge translation approach in pilot projects in the months following the workshop. Scott’s team is working with the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) to bring together First Nations communities and different kinds of researchers, health promoters, and policy people to develop a tool to assess children’s environmental health effects resulting from mining and hydro development in their communities.

“What the equity-focused knowledge translation approach gives me is a way to move my research to a more community-engaged practice,” says Scott. “It’s the difference between being in a room with a computer analysing data versus being in a community and actually facilitating the actions of that community to make the environment a better place for their children.”

Scott is also bringing CPCHE’s work into his classroom back at Simon Fraser University. CPCHE recently hosted a webinar series on the links between early environmental exposures and chronic disease, including a session on the suspected role of endocrine disrupting chemicals in obesity, metabolic syndrome and related health concerns. Scott set up a large projection screen so his masters students and faculty members could watch it together and participate.

“It was a conference call so you could interact, ask questions. And it worked!” says Scott. “For us it was a good teaching tool. It gave the students some information they hadn’t seen before and we had good discussions afterwards.”

Scott Venners may be contacted by email at scott_venners@sfu.ca