March 11, 2020

O’Brien Institute marks 10 years of punching above its weight

André Picard, Mayor Nenshi, community leaders, and members celebrate first decade of impact on public health

It was a night of celebrity kudos, of celebrating surpassed expectations, of recalling milestones in achievement and impact, and of an emotional goodbye, as the O’Brien Institute for Public Health marked its 10-year anniversary on March 6 at the Glenbow Museum.

Hosting Canada’s premier health journalist, the Globe and Mail’s André Picard, the gathering looked back at the research and policy-informing strides the institute has made in its short history, while contemplating the risks and challenges that will drive and shape public health in the future, including growing social inequity and the possibility of epidemics such as the spread of the coronavirus.

The role that public health in general, and the O’Brien Institute in particular play, is critical because they look at health from the only angle that is effective — from a societal point of view, Picard told a packed house.

You can’t have healthy people if society is sick.

“Society is only as strong as the weakest link in our chain," he said. "If we don't treat everyone well, then we’re failing as a society.”

Ten years of growth and achievement

The youngest of the seven institutes based out of the Cumming School of Medicine, the O’Brien Institute was born in 2010 and has since grown to more than 1,100 members and affiliates, encompassing disciplines from across the spectrum, as well as senior bureaucrats and community agencies. This growth stems from its pan-university mandate and an aim to achieve societal impact by putting its research to work improving and safeguarding the well-being of Calgarians, Albertans and citizens beyond. It was that focus that naming donor Gail O’Brien said motivated her, and her husband David, to support the institute, a decision she says she is thankful she made.

“I can’t say enough about how proud we are of the outstanding work and impact that the institute has had… we truly believe in, and are inspired by, the work that has been achieved,” O’Brien told the crowd of more than 200.

And those achievements have surpassed expectations, added O’Brien, who quoted a report by a visiting International Scientific Advisory Group, which stated that the O’Brien Institute is “a research generator that other universities should try to emulate.”

William Ghali addresses the institute community at its 10-year anniversary celebration.

William Ghali addresses the institute community at its 10-year anniversary celebration.

Pablo Fernandez

Unable to attend in person, in a video address Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi described the work done by the Institute on behalf of, and along with, the City of Calgary as “extraordinary,” citing the work conducted around hot button issues such as community water fluoridation. But the impact of this collaboration goes much deeper than that, said Nenshi, adding that the institute’s close relation to the city was crucial in re-invigorating the relationship between the city and the university.

“Every single thing we do in the community needs to be about the social determinants of health,” said Nenshi.

“It needs to be about creating a healthy environment for everyone, and public health is an incredibly critical part of that… Thank you for being great partners of the City of Calgary, thank you for building our community and, ultimately, thank you for helping us help Calgarians with healthier lives.”

Partnerships far and wide

In its first 10 years, the institute has partnered with the city, the province, the federal government and the World Health Organization, as well as countless other national and international networks and organizations, all in search of societal impact, said Dr. William Ghali, MD, who led the institute as scientific director through its first 10 years and has, as of last week, taken on the role of UCalgary’s vice-president (research).

It’s the O’Brien Institute’s belief in putting research to work in society, and in the importance of collaboration, that has set it on its current path, said Ghali.

“Research is normally thought of as investigating and publishing, investigating and publishing, but the institute has always sought more. Research needs to translate into societal impact,” he said, adding that partnerships are at the core of national and international impact, “and we have those partnerships.”

Showcasing the work where the institute has staked its claim in its first decade, institute members — Drs. Katrina Milaney, PhD, Doreen Rabi, MD, and Tyler Williamson, PhD — described how health systems in the digital age are being designed and optimized; how big data will affect the way we learn, consume, date and vote; and the work the institute has done in addressing inequities, marginalization, stigmatization, and the damaging effect these have on the individual and society.

Ghali feted at event

The event also served as a final goodbye to Ghali, who ended his 10-year-tenure as institute scientific director March 1.

Passionate, humble, collaborative, friendly, curious and loved, is how those who spoke about Ghali characterized him. O’Brien called him “the magic, the secret sauce,” that made the institute what it is today.

Ghali is a loved, trusted and respected leader who built teams, empowered colleagues and was tireless in his quest to mentor and to ensure everyone shared a sense of belonging, said Dr. Aleem Bharwani, MD, the institute's policy executive lead.

“Leaders are not picked just for their CVs — but for who is right for the time and the context,” he said. “Bill was exactly what this institute needed — and I am genuinely sad to see him go — but he is also exactly what our university needs right now, so we must share him.”

As the institute moves into its second decade, Picard finished by offering that it must continue to do work that is relevant to all, that may at times be unpopular but that continues to improve the quality of life of everyone in society.

Dr. Aleem Bharwani, MD, on the importance of public health as a discipline

  • “If you believe infection anywhere, can lead to infection everywhere, public health matters!
  • “If you believe health is wealth, but also that wealth is health, public health matters!
  • “If you believe in value, efficiency and scale, public health matters!
  • “If you like your kids raised by parents and communities instead of commercials, public health matters!
  • “If you like equal care for any gender, public health matters!
  • “And, if you like the LT in your BLT to be e. coli and salmonella free, public health matters!”