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Photo courtesy of the O'Brien Institute of Public Health

William Ghali, inaugural scientific director of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health, celebrates a decade of impact and moves into vice-president research role

By Kristy Koehler, March 11 2020—

The O’Brien Institute for Public Health celebrated a decade of impact this year with an anniversary event at the Glenbow Museum on March 6. The event also celebrated William Ghali, the Institute’s inaugural scientific director, who left the role on Feb. 29 to take the position of vice-president research at the University of Calgary.

Ghali was still unpacking boxes and moving into his new office when he took the time to speak to the Gauntlet.

The O’Brien Institute for Public Health is the university’s seventh institute at the Cumming School of Medicine, along with others that include the McCaig Institute for Bone and Joint Health, the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, Libin Cardiovascular Institute and Charbonneau Cancer Research Institute. While the other six launched in 2003–04, the public health institute launched in 2010 and got its name in 2014, after a naming donation from David and Gail O’Brien.

“The health research institutes that we have at the University of Calgary are meant to be entities that connect people from across the university in thematic areas of health research,” said Ghali. “To an extent, we tend to live in our faculties and go to our desks and work and go home, the idea of these institutes is to create connections that didn’t exist before.”

The Institute’s vision is “Better health and health care,” which Ghali remarked is “quite a sensible vision for a public health institute.”

“We’re trying to contribute to a better healthcare system for treating people when they’re sick but also bettering the health of populations which is health out in the community. That’s the Institute’s core business,” he said.

“How do we do that? That’s crystallized in our mission which is to inform public policy for health. 

We do that by generating new evidence and knowledge through research and also by convening discussion, symposia and debates on challenging topics. We achieve those impacts on public policy by working with governments.”

The O’Brien Institute has worked with the City of Calgary on initiatives and the provincial and federal governments as well as the World Health Organization and other international bodies.

Significant contributions have been made to public policy at all levels thanks to the work of researchers at the Institute. Ghali highlighted a few big achievements that came to mind when thinking of the Institute’s work over the last decade, one being Carolyn Emery’s work on bodychecking and concussions. Her important work changed the age at which bodychecking is permitted in Canadian minor hockey.

The O’Brien Institute also contributed to a project with the Calgary Urban Projects Society (CUPS) to assist vulnerable Calgarians who were frequenting emergency rooms due to food insecurity, lack of housing or lack of connections in the community to assist them when sick.

“That program led to a significant reduction of frequent use of emergency rooms while also improving lives which is really more important,” said Ghali. 

“We have advanced eHealth in the province. Alberta is really advanced in terms of electronic health information resources that doctors, nurses and pharmacists use in looking after patients but also in advancing care. The eHealth landscape has significantly improved because of work that we’ve done in the Institute.”

The team at the Institute also did some work with the World Health Organization (WHO) in policy for reducing antimicrobial resistance on a global scale. 

“Because of work that we did, the WHO now has new guidelines on the use of antimicrobials in agriculture,” said Ghali. “In fact, Canada changed its regulations in relation to that work.”

While the Institute has been impacting public policy around the world, what was Ghali’s biggest personal achievement as scientific director?

“Surviving it all,” he laughs. “It’s been such an incredible journey. I’ve learned so much through this role. What being the director involved was really taking stock of who we have at the University of Calgary who’s doing research in what we would describe as public health.”

Ghali identified a very large community of people doing just that – now the Institute has just over 500 members from across the university campus. Fifty percent of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health’s members come from medicine and the other fifty from a broad range of other disciplines including nursing, kinesiology, social work, engineering and more.

“The process of building a membership and getting to know the membership, you can imagine that’s a lot of people to get to meet and learn from over time,” said Ghali. “There’s such a diversity of experience and it’s really been enriching.”

Ghali said that, while sad to leave the role, it was the right time to move on. He’ll be headed over to the main campus to take on the role of vice-president research, a position previously held by university president Ed McCauley.

“I was mindful that it’s good to leave when energy was still high. We have so many outstanding people at the Institute that are emerging leaders — the future is in good hands and I’m excited. I’m not going to hide that I’m very excited about this new job.”

Ghali says his first priority is learning. 

“I can tell, only three days in, that it’s a very, very complex job. There’s so many strategic initiatives that are underway. The first priority is trying not to slow the great momentum that is in place.”

What does the vice-president research actually do? Well, says Ghali, research is a business and his job will involve managing all aspects of that business, bringing in money, managing money well and producing output and value for money. 

“Often, that money comes from taxpayer dollars or from donors so the vice-president research has an ultimate accountability for the university doing well in that business of doing research,” he said. “Part of that business is that there are some regulations that we have to follow around how money is managed, there are ethical considers and ethics review processes and a whole machinery that oversees the regulatory and ethical oversight of research so that’s a big part.”

Not only is it about managing money, says Ghali, but creating connections. 

“The vice-president research wants to catalyze connections, help people make connections and open doors. Connecting people and opportunities, connecting people with each other, connecting people to the community — that’s all part of being a great research university and making a difference through our research.”

While there have been financial cuts to post-secondary institutions with the latest provincial budget, Ghali says the university is ready to rise to the challenge.

“There’s no question that we are in a time where we are being asked by government to be fiscally responsible and to examine expenditures and find ways to achieve efficiency,” he said. “The university has an outstanding leadership team that is working within the framework of what government has indicated that they’re able to give at this time and in this economy. The university executive team is committed to maintaining the excellence and the exciting trajectory of the university. 

“The University of Calgary is on such an exciting trajectory. I’m proud of the O’Brien Institute that I had the privilege of leading — I’m so excited by what happened over the last ten years and now in this new role I know that the mandate is to achieve more of the same on this larger scale and I’m excited.”

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