Oct. 28, 2020

O’Brien Institute for Public Health welcomes new director, marks first decade of impact

Tom Stelfox begins his role as scientific director Nov. 1

Marking a historic year for public health, 2020 also saw the O’Brien Institute for Public Health’s first decade of achievement.

In what started off as a year of celebration for the institute, 2020 saw the COVID-19 pandemic highlight the importance of robust public health systems and institutions in responding to the crisis.

  • Photo above: Tom Stelfox begins his role as scientific director of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health Nov. 1. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Now, as a new decade for the institute approaches, a new leader steps in. On Nov. 1, Dr. Tom Stelfox, MD, PhD, will begin his role as scientific director of the O’Brien Institute, succeeding former scientific director Dr. William Ghali, who took on the role of the University of Calgary’s vice-president (research) in March 2020, and interim director Dr. Christine Friedenreich, PhD, who had previously served as the institute’s associate scientific director.

“As we come to the end of the O’Brien Institute’s first 10 years we have a lot to be grateful for and a lot to celebrate,” says Stelfox, a professor in the departments of Critical Care Medicine, Medicine and Community Health Sciences at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM). “The success we have achieved to date is a direct reflection of the talent and commitment of the O’Brien Institute membership, as well as past and present institute leadership.”

Throughout his career, Stelfox has held a variety of leadership roles. As of Nov. 1, he leaves his position as head, Department of Critical Care Medicine, CSM and Alberta Health Services Calgary Zone. He was the inaugural scientific director of the Alberta Health Services Critical Care Strategic Clinical Network and held several leadership roles within the O’Brien Institute including with the executive committee and as co-chair of the Health Care System Performance Improvement research subgroup.

The opportunity to play a bigger part in the good work the O’Brien Institute does was a main motivator in taking the scientific director position, Stelfox says.

“I felt that this was a tremendous opportunity to impact the health of Calgarians, Canadians and people around the world in a breadth and a scope that few other opportunities provide,” he says.

Attendees at the O’Brien Institute event, A new Decade in Public Health, listen to a fireside chat with special guests André Picard and Dr. Tom Noseworthy, MD, at the Glenbow on March 6, 2020.

Attendees at the O’Brien Institute event, A new Decade in Public Health, listen to a fireside chat with special guests André Picard and Dr. Tom Noseworthy, MD, at the Glenbow on March 6, 2020.

Friedenreich says she looks forward to working with Stelfox to build on the achievements of the past ten years.

“It has been wonderful to lead the institute over the past eight months and learn more about the impactful initiatives that are underway and the expertise housed within our membership. I am particularly excited to work with Tom to bring the O’Brien Institute to even higher levels in the upcoming years,” she says.

A focus on the future

The past 10 years have cemented the O’Brien Institute as a powerful agent for transformative change in areas of social and structural vulnerabilities, big data, harm reduction measures for people with substance use disorders, and eHealth and other health system optimization efforts. 

The next decade will be an opportunity for the institute to continue to address these areas, and other emerging public health challenges, says Stelfox.

“There is a desperate need to solve big public health problems, whether that's the COVID-19 pandemic, the opioid crisis, mental health, social and ecological determinants of health or health system performance — all of these things are crying out for big solutions.”

The emerging field of precision public health, which uses data to target interventions for populations by person, place, and time with a focus on reducing health disparities is one of the tools Stelfox says is key to addressing these challenges.

The future for the institute is bright, says Stelfox, in large part due to its diverse membership, who come from faculties across the university, health professionals in Alberta Health Services and decision-makers at the municipal and provincial levels. 

“In our next decade, we want to further engage and empower our transdisciplinary membership of social innovators, entrepreneurs and changemakers to set the bar even higher for public health and sharpen our focus on innovation.”

The O’Brien Institute will also continue to build deeper partnerships with Alberta Health, Alberta Health Services, Campus Alberta, and governmental and nongovernmental organizations to translate science into better health and better health care, says Stelfox.

“If we integrate and work together, the public health system, the health-care system and academia can tackle our biggest public health challenges for a better future for all,” he says.