A Project on Climate Change at Durham Region’s Health Department

Back Row (L to R): Alexandra Swirski, Jasantha Naidoo, Sherri Deamond, Kaitlin Bradley, and James Lane

Front Row (L to R): Fangli Xie, Mary-Anne Pietrusiak, Karen Wall, Anjali Pandya


For my practicum, I have been working (remotely) as an Epidemiology Student with the Health Analytics and Research Team at the Durham Region Health Department. My project focuses on assessing health impacts and vulnerabilities due to climate change within Durham Region. The topics of focus have been extreme heat and ultraviolet radiation. As climate change is projected to be the most pressing public health concern of the 21st century, the 2018 Ontario Public Health Standards introduced a new mandate for all Ontario local public health units to conduct health vulnerability assessments. This will help determine local vulnerabilities to climate change and develop adaptation plans to mitigate these effects. For the past three months, I have been supporting the Health Analytics and Research Team with their ongoing assessment.

Better known as HART, the team consists of one Manager, six Epidemiologists, one Data Analyst and one Program Assistant (see photo below). Normally, HART supports public health practice in all Health Department programs by conducting population health assessments, engaging in research and knowledge exchange, completing program evaluations, and supporting evidence-informed decision-making. Population health assessments include climate change related data and health outcomes, community health survey results, and program evaluation reports. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, HART has been responsible for updating the Durham Region COVID-19 Data Tracker, reporting the epidemiology of COVID-19 activity, and running data quality reports to ensure that the COVID-19 data is accurate.

The climate change health vulnerability assessment has required me to conduct literature reviews, perform analyses of environmental health data, create graphs and tables, and engage in report writing. I have also been fortunate enough to participate in weekly team meetings, presentations, and tutorials on various data applications (such as Ontario Marginalization Index and PowerBI).

One of the most daunting components of my research has centered on the data management and use of epidemiology to assess environmental health trends. However, my supervisors have been incredible in guiding me throughout the process, especially with extracting data from various public health databases. Some of the databases we have pulled data from include the Rapid Risk Factor Surveillance System, integrated Public Health Information System, Acute Care Enhanced Surveillance, and Cancer Care Ontario’s SEERStat. The data is then analyzed through Excel and STATA statistical software. Trend identification and visualization are used to determine the impacts of extreme heat and ultraviolet radiation in Durham. While I was initially nervous about the data management component of my project, I have really expanded my data management and epidemiological research abilities. This has increased my confidence in supporting population health assessments.

An unexpected challenge of my practicum has been integrating effective health communication strategies to properly relay epidemiological findings to appropriate target audiences. Many people understand the health risks associated with exposure to extreme heat and ultraviolet radiation but do not take the proper precautions. Through the Masters of Public Health program at the University of Guelph, I completed a Health Communication course and can appreciate why communication is a core competency for effective public health practice. I have been incorporating definitions and plain language throughout the report to ensure health risks related to climate change are properly conveyed. 

With one month left in my practicum, I will be finalizing the environmental health data and interpreting the results in plain language for the final report. Through my time with the Durham Region Health Department, I have gained a huge appreciation for local public health units. I was not aware of the complexities surrounding population health assessments and the extensive work completed by HART. The members of HART have a wealth of public health, epidemiological and analytical knowledge, and they are always open to sharing their experiences (even amidst a global pandemic!). I have been able to expand my epidemiology, data management, and health communication skill set while also increasing my knowledge of climate change impacts, data analysis, and local public health units. Overall, this practicum has really reaffirmed my interest in public health and epidemiological research. I look forward to returning to the University of Guelph to continue building on the knowledge acquired from HART and to become a well-rounded public health graduate.