McMaster University

McMaster University

Faculty of
Health Sciences

Sharing knowledge focus of public health conference

By Suzanne Morrison
Published: October 31, 2008
Donna Ciliska
Donna Ciliska, professor in the School of nursing and scientific director of the National Collaborating Centre for Methods and Tools

Canada’s worst outbreak of E.coli from contaminated water killed seven people in Walkerton, Ontario in May, 2000 and made 2,500 residents ill. Ontario was hit by SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in 2003; contaminated cold cuts from a Toronto meat processing plant killed at least 16 Canadians from listeriosis this year; and most recently, a North Bay fast food restaurant was shut down after more than 200 people became sick from a potentially deadly strain of E.coli.

As health crises emerge, each province is on its own to handle the fallout — often without easy access to necessary knowledge and evidence that could improve policies and practices.

"One of the issues the public probably doesn’t know is that there is no public health system in Canada," said Donna Ciliska, a professor in the School of Nursing at McMaster University and scientific director of the National Collaborating Centre for Methods and Tools.

"Public health is a provincial program and differs across provinces, and even within provinces," Ciliska said.  "For example, Vancouver differs from the public health system in the rest of British Columbia."

Because evidence for making important public health decisions isn’t readily available, the Canadian government established the National Collaborating Centres for Public Health (NCCPH) in 2004 to strengthen and renew public health capacity in Canada. Six collaborating centres promote evidence-informed decision-making in specific public health areas - aboriginal health, determinants of health, environmental health, infectious diseases, healthy public policy – including a centre at McMaster University whose focus is methods and tools.

On Nov. 3 and 4, McMaster will host a national conference about Knowledge Management in Public Health which will explore four themes: culture, content, technology and processes, or how to help people use better information.

"The purpose of the conference is to bring key people together to answer the question about the need for a knowledge management strategy for public health in Canada," said Kathie Clark, the centre’s administrative director. "If so, what should it look like, what should it be doing, how should it be guided and who should co-ordinate it at various levels."

In preparing for the November conference, Clark said organizers realized a lot of information about knowledge management isn’t readily available. "Some types of information is stored in people’s heads and not shared. So, when they retire, they walk out the door with it."

Two hundred managers, policymakers and people in knowledge management or translation roles in public health at local, provincial and federal levels are expected to attend.

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