Researchers in the province of Ontario have embarked on the largest long-term health study ever conducted in North America. An initial research phase involving 8,000 adults in three different communities in Ontario is complete and the Ontario Health Study is now beginning the main phase, which will follow the health of adults in the province for the rest of their lives.
This week, study organizers kicked their recruitement efforts into high gear with advertising, posters, tweets and Facebook updates being used in an attempt to recruit around 2 million volunteers (around 20% of eligible adults in the province).
The original press release from September invited all Ontario adults to join the research effort. In the release, Professor Lyle Palmer, the Executive Science Director for the Ontario Health Study, explained the purpose of the research:
“Ontario’s large, ethnically diverse population, world-class medical research, and outstanding health data linkage system make it the ideal place to conduct research that will lead to advances in the prevention, early detection, diagnosis and treatment of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, asthma and other common conditions. We have planned a strategy to reach out to all adults living in Ontario from every ethnic and social background in order to collect data that can be used to improve the health of all of Ontario’s communities, and to produce findings that will be relevant throughout the world.”
The research is being led by four government-funded organizations, namely:
Other than the Ontario Agency for Health Protection and Promotion, which is dedicated to protecting and promoting the health of all Ontarians and reducing inequities in health, all of the funding agencies are focused on one disease: Cancer.
While there are certainly many other things that ail Ontarians, cancer is arguably the disease with the greatest impact on the province. According to Statistics Canada’s recently released data on causes of death in 2007, cancer was the leading cause of death in Canada, accounting for 30% of all deaths. This was followed by heart disease (22%) and stroke (6%). Alarmingly, while deaths from heart disease and stroke are decreasing, deaths from cancer continue to increase.
The Frequently Asked Questions about the survey go into great detail on the measures that will be used to protect the privacy of study participants and outside of an unexpected privacy breach, that shouldn’t really be a concern. However, some people may be interested in the way the data may be used.
While no personal information on study participants will be provided to outside organizations, the resulting data will be available for use by the government (as would be expected as funders of the study) as well as for commercial purposes. Private sector companies, such as drug companies and other industry groups, will be able to purchase the data to assist them in the development of new therapies and to make improvements to existing therapies.
While that theoretically sounds like a positive development, some people may question whether the data will also be used as a marketing tool to help better target specific groups with specific drugs or other health products and services that may or may not lead to better health outcomes (e.g. elective surgery, infant formula, over the counter drugs, weight loss programs, and more).
Ultimately, the study will provide an incredible amount of rich information on Ontarians if enough people agree to participate. If this can truly contribute to improved health outcomes in the province (especially as it relates to cancer), then it has the potential to improve the quality of life of Ontarians and to allow for decreased or more optimized health care spending through the public health care system.
If you are in Ontario and want to learn more about the study or consider participating, you can find information on the Ontario Health Study’s website: www.ontariohealthstudy.ca.
Annie blogs about the art and science of parenting at the PhD in Parenting blog.
Image credit: Screen capture of Ontario Health Study twitter account taken on December 29, 2010.
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