Translating stats into stories to assess the health of Canadians

If you ask social scientist Marie DesMeules what is influencing how healthy you are, she might say your postal code. Or the number of close friends you have.

She might also point out that you are more vulnerable to illness if your job is stressful and unsafe, or if you don’t have a post-secondary diploma.

“Sure genetics and biology play a role,” DesMeules says, “but so do the structural factors in our society such as racism or inadequate income or lack of access to education.”

DesMeules is the director of the Social Determinants of Health Division, part of the Health Promotion and Chronic Disease Prevention Branch at the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). She leads a team of 25 professionals who study the differences in social and economic conditions among groups of Canadians, based on income, education, employment, social supports and other factors, and how inequalities between these groups impact health.

“It’s about realizing that you can’t intervene on health in isolation,” DesMeules says.

Since the start of her career, DesMeules has worked to increase understanding that socioeconomic factors have impacts on health.

“For example, it's challenging to provide prevention and promotion programs to individuals who don't have stable housing,” DesMeules explains. “They change addresses, sometimes they are hard to reach, and their priority may not be to follow a program when they don't have their basic needs met.”

DesMeules has also found that sex and gender issues are significant social determinants of health. She started working to have gender-related socio-economic factors considered in public policies and planning long before the federal government introduced the requirement for sex and gender-based analysis in the development of policies and services.

“Before we were at the forefront of this field, not everyone was convinced. More traditional public health professionals thought, ‘Social science doesn’t have a role in this!’”

As a social scientist, DesMeules helps translate statistics into stories that provide deeper insight into the health of Canadians. These stories help policy experts make better decisions when implementing health policy or designing new initiatives.

“Statistics can help you, but can also hide a lot. Averages can be misleading and reporting on rates overall can hide a lot of differences,” DesMeules reflects. “Sometimes statistics aren’t enough. Sometimes you need qualitative research methods to understand the conditions that Canadians live in.”

Currently, her team is looking at the unique challenges and barriers faced by Black communities in Canada and how these can negatively impact the mental and physical health of people who live in them. A milestone for DesMeules and her team was publishing the Key Health Inequalities in Canada report, which was shared with more than 80 countries. The report brought to light some of the most pronounced and widespread health inequalities in Canada, including the strong relationship between level of education and the risk of diabetes, and the link between sexual orientation and health.   

“If community public health programs take into account the conditions and circumstances of diverse Canadians, they have a better chance of success,” according to DesMeules.

In June 2018, DesMeules received the Chief Public Health Officer Medal, a top honour at PHAC for leaders in public health.  

Marie DesMeules (centre) was awarded the Chief Public Health Officer medal in June 2018 for her achievements in linking social and economic factors to health inequalities by Dr. Siddika Mithani, President of the Public Health Agency of Canada (left) and Dr. Theresa Tam, Chief Public Health Officer of Canada (right).

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