Providing a voice to vulnerable groups
by Tim Rosillo
Alyson Mahar has always been interested in equitable health care for all Canadians. After completing her MSc in epidemiology in the Department of Community Health and Epidemiology (now Public Health Sciences), Alyson knew that she wanted to continue her training in advanced epidemiologic and health services research methods and apply her new training to ensuring vulnerable Canadians received an equal opportunity for appropriate healthcare. The PhD in epidemiology has given Alyson the opportunity to work with leaders in cancer care evaluation and health services research to develop her ideas into a doctoral thesis.
For Alyson, a huge draw to the PhD in epidemiology program at Queen’s was the relationship that exists between the Department and the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES) Health Services Research Facility at Queen’s. This gave her access to restricted provincial administrative healthcare data and the opportunity to gain valuable experience working with large databases. ICES - Queen’s is a strong part of the Queen’s health services and policy research community. Working in a small department and being part of a supportive community of faculty, staff and students were other key considerations in her decision.
Alyson is supported by a Fredrick Banting and Charles Best Canada Graduate Doctoral Scholarship from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. Her thesis research focuses on the impact of a severe psychiatric illness on a patient’s cancer diagnosis, and their subsequent staging, treatment and survival. She is supervised by Patti Groome (Department of Public Health Sciences) and Paul Kurdyak (Centre for Addictions and Mental Health, Toronto). Previous studies have shown that people with a severe psychiatric illness have worse cardiovascular and diabetes health outcomes. She and her supervisors hypothesized that patients with a severe psychiatric illness may also be at risk for worse cancer outcomes. There may be a number of reasons for this, including interfering symptoms of the mental illness, and high rates of complex physical health issues, difficulties for the patient in accessing healthcare, and stigma from healthcare providers. The intention of Alyson’s research is to try and identify where interventions to improve the intersection of psychiatric and cancer care could be targeted.
Away from her formal coursework and training, Alyson has made the most of the incredible opportunities available to PhD students in the Department of Public Health Sciences at Queen’s. She works with Dr. Alice Aiken, Director of the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research (CIMVHR) on an ICES project to study a cohort of Canadian Veterans and military families in Ontario using provincial administrative data. Alyson feels that this opportunity has been a huge asset to her training and development as an epidemiologist.
Alyson’s ambition after graduation is to gain a faculty position, as a Scientist leading her own research program. Ultimately, she wants to be in a position where she can use her epidemiologic methods training to help inform Canadian health policy and act as an advocate in healthcare for people whose voices are not heard.