My Health My Community survey helps public shape priorities

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American humorist Mark Twain once wrote that there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. Had Twain been living in Richmond in the 21st century, he might well have been discussing a misleading impression created in 2010 by statistics on smoking.

That’s because the Canadian Community Health Survey reported at that time that smoking rates in the Vancouver suburb had reached 18.5 percent, which was significantly higher than in previous years. This prompted Vancouver Coastal Health officials to ponder whether they should reallocate public resources to control tobacco use in this municipality.

But something didn’t add up, because Richmond had already been dubbed “Canada’s healthiest city” in 2007 by Canadian Living magazine for having the country’s longest life expectancy.

Dr. Jat Sandhu, regional director for public-health surveillance, told the Georgia Straight by phone that Richmond’s high smoking percentage in 2010 led to some “unhelpful discussion” about whether this could be attributed to the municipality’s large immigrant population.

Researchers decided to conduct a pilot study in Richmond in February 2012 as part of the My Health My Community survey, which is a partnership between UBC’s eHealth Strategy Office, Vancouver Coastal Health, and Fraser Health.

“In a 10-day period, we actually achieved a sample size that was four times higher than anything a national or provincial survey would have given us,” Sandhu said.

It showed that the smoking prevalence in Richmond was only 7.7 percent. Among females, only 5.3 percent were smokers.

Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health have since gone on to offer the My Health My Community survey online to capture neighbourhood-level information on the social, economic, and physical determinants of health.

Sandhu said the survey probes everything from access to safe and nutritious food to air and water quality to factors leading to social exclusion. In addition, it gathers data on incomes, educational levels, ethnicity, and prevalence of chronic diseases, as well as the percentage of the population that has access to a family physician.

“Where you live, learn, work, and play affects your heath,” Sandhu said. “People who are more socially connected are more likely to have more positive lifestyle behaviours.”

The goal is to reach 40,000 people by March 31, a large enough sample size to make it representative by age, sex, ethnicity, education, and income. “Traditionally, we’ve done our community-health assessments relying on national and provincial surveys,” Sandhu said. “Those national and provincial surveys really provide a perspective at a 30,000-foot level.”

In October, Vancouver Coastal Health released the North Shore Community Wellness Survey, focusing on the District of North Vancouver, City of North Vancouver, District of West Vancouver, Bowen Island, Village of Lions Bay, and Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh nations. It found that 57 percent of North Shore adults reported being in “excellent” or “very good” health. Only 7.6 percent classified themselves as smokers, and almost half met a recommended guideline for physical activity. However, only 31 percent ate the recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables.

Researchers also discovered that 76 percent of North Shore adults 60 years and older have at least one chronic health condition. Rates of high blood pressure and chronic lung disease were lower among those with more education, but this was not true of arthritis, cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.

The My Health My Community survey also explores access to community services, such as fitness facilities. This provides useful information to municipal governments when they’re planning capital projects.

Some of the information used to be captured by the compulsory long-form census, which the Conservative government eliminated over the objections of many researchers. Sandhu emphasized that nothing can replace the long-form census, but My Health My Community can “fill part of the gap” by reporting on correlations of census characteristics with people’s health and well-being.

“We’re going to be able to look at it at the individual level because we will have that person’s socioeconomic status together with their health outcomes,” he said.

The survey is open to anyone 18 years and older who lives in the Vancouver Coastal Health or Fraser Health region. More information is available at the My Health Community website.

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