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Master of Public Health student focuses on antibiotic use

A practicum semester with the Public Health Agency of Canada offered Master of Public Health student Brendan Dougherty an opportunity to bring together his interests in data analysis and antibiotic use in infectious disease. 

The practicum semester is a requirement after two semesters of course study in the Master of Public Health (MPH) program at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College. Dougherty was pleased to find a placement with the Centre for Foodborne, Environmental and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases of the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), who is responsible for coordinating the FoodNet Canada surveillance program.

Brendan Dougherty is pursuing a PhD in Population Medicine (Public Health) at the Ontario Veterinary College, University of GuelphThe project involved two of his favourite things, data analysis and statistics, and tackled the important issue of antibiotic use in infectious diseases, one of his interests. 

PHAC collects surveillance data on foodborne gastrointestinal infections within three Canadian cities or sentinel sites. Visit the doctor with an upset tummy and you may be asked for a stool sample for testing. If the test is positive for a foodborne infection and you live in one of these three sites, the data will be collected and included in the PHAC surveillance database. 

Dougherty’s task: review that data and see how often antibiotics were prescribed for people with these infections. The literature review he did as part of the study found that treatment guidelines generally advise against giving antibiotics, except in certain situations. Despite that, 47 per cent of the people were prescribed antibiotics. 

For those infected by one particular pathogen – toxigenic E. coli – antibiotics can cause serious complications. Dougherty found 37 per cent of those with this pathogen were prescribed antibiotics and suspects that in many cases the prescription was given before testing confirming the diagnosis was complete. Besides this risk, over-prescription of antibiotics contributes significantly to antibiotic resistance. 

Since completing the MPH program, Doughtery is continuing his work in this area, pursuing a PhD in Population Medicine (Public Health) with advisor Andrew Papadopoulos

“There is no comparison between the MPH at OVC and other programs,” says Dougherty, who had previously studied at McGill and University of British Columbia. “Thanks to my professors’ advice, I am still working for PHAC to find ways to persuade physicians to prescribe fewer antibiotics while continuing my education.”