Mental health needs and technological interventions for social connectedness amongst older adults

Older adults are one of the most at-risk groups in the COVID-19 pandemic, both to the negative effects of the virus and on their social connections. In order to stop the spread of COVID-19, social distancing and stay-at-home orders have been put in place. As a result of these steps, places that older adults go to socialize, for example seniors’ community centres, have been forced to close. The aim of this project is to work with a not-for-profit community centre, the West End Seniors Network (WESN), to disseminate the finding from a project where we examined the social connectedness of seniors during the COVID-19 pandemic. The mission of WESN is to enhance the quality of life of older adults by providing social, recreational, educational and supportive programs and services that foster connection and inclusion in the broader community. WESN is the second-largest independent seniors’ centre in Vancouver with over 900 active members; however, due to COVID-19 WESN was forced to close its doors. Through this project we will work with WESN staff and community members to disseminate ways that we can develop stronger social connections. Through interviews with staff, community members, and older adults, we identified what worked, and what did not work to better seniors COVID-19 experience. We will use this information to inform policy-makers, other community centres, and older adults of the ways that we can improve social connections during the pandemic. Through this project we can use the lessons learned and relationships built in this project in larger
programs and with more partners.

Digital interventions to improve social connectedness and mental wellbeing of vulnerable older adults during COVID-19 and beyond

Indira Riadi, as a PhD candidate and student lead under the supervision of Dr. Theodore Cosco, is being co-funded by MSFHR and Mitacs as part of a studentship program led by Mental Health Research Canada in partnership with the Mitacs Accelerate program, designed to develop the brightest Master’s students conducting research in mental health.

During her internship, Indira will work with the West End Seniors Network, Vancouver’s second largest not-for-profit seniors centre, to identify ways to improve the social lives and mental wellbeing of ethnic and gender/sexual minority seniors during COVID-19 and beyond. This project hopes to explore the mental health priorities of these populations, investigate what has been done (with specific emphasis on digital interventions), and identify successful and unsuccessful interventions to help raise social connectedness and alleviate mental distress among marginalized older adults in Vancouver.

Funding Competition: Mental Health Research Canada – Mitacs Studentship Program
Funders: MSFHR; Mitacs

Adapting breath/air communications to rural, remote and Indigenous ways of living

Breathing is living. In recent years, policies that impact lung health and air quality have led people to change how they go about daily life. Traditionally, these policies are crafted by experts and specialists, with little input from the public. More effective policies could be developed by enhancing public participation and collaboration in the policy process. The overarching goal of our work is to improve the sharing and exchange of information about lung health policies with people living in rural, remote, and Indigenous communities.

This study uses design methods to adapt lung health policy communications for rural, remote, and Indigenous communities. The connections we create will be facilitated by two streams of outreach activities:

Stream 1 — AIRWISE-CONNECT — creates a community advisory group with Indigenous and non-Indigenous community members in northern British Columbia. This group will meet four times over a year to participate in a human-centred design process and interactive group meetings. During these meetings, we will adapt a previously developed website: www.airwisebc.ca.

Stream 2 — AIRWISE-VISION — develops a working relationship with the Witset First Nation Band Council and community members to better inform policies and practice. We will draw on the Design Justice method to create new breath/air policy communications that honour the traditional knowledge and practices in Witset.

The principal investigator, Sonya Cressman, a health economist at Simon Fraser University and the Centre for Clinical Epidemiology and Evaluation, will lead the study with co-Investigators: Brian Fisher and Dawn Hoogeveen at SFU and collaborators: Renelle Myers (BC Cancer), Anthony Noonan (Executive Director, Witset First Nation), Anne- Marie Nicol (SFU), and Chris Carlsten (Legacy for Airway Health).

This project is jointly funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Connection Grant and Health Research BC, through its match funding initiative.

General and inexpensive saliva-based viral RNA testing by direct imaging

In the absence of a vaccine and/or effective treatment, rapid and robust testing is vital not only to reduce the transmission and spread of SARS-CoV-2, but also for paving the way to safely reopen borders and reinstating the world economy. Most Covid-19 tests are performed using nasopharyngeal swabs that are sent to a hospital or public health laboratory to be processed for RT-PCR analysis using expensive equipment by technically trained staff. The specificity of such amplification-based tests makes them superior to many other detection tests. However, the occurrence of false-negative results due to the low levels of viral RNA found in such samples, as exemplified by recent problems with Spartan Cube1, suggests that avoiding nucleic acid amplification entirely and switching to the direct detection of viral RNA could be highly advantageous for SARS-CoV-2 detection.

Funded by the CIHR Rapid Research Opportunity and MSFHR, Dr. Peter Unrau is leading a team of researchers to develop a new saliva-based viral testing strategy for use in the current Covid-19 pandemic. Dr. Unrau (professor in RNA biochemistry) and co-investigator Dr. Forde (professor in biological physics) will coordinate a research team at Simon Fraser University. They will work in collaboration with David Rueda, a professor in single-molecule imaging at Imperial College London.

This COVID-19 research will allow the development of a fast, inexpensive and sensitive viral RNA test that, in principle, could be used for point of care testing at home. The proposed SARS-CoV-2 RNA single-molecule imaging test will be highly specific, will rely on simple well-understood chemistry, and will include an inexpensive imaging device that connects to a cell phone. An additional benefit of this device is that test procedures can easily be adapted for the screening of other RNA pathogens in the future.

Funding competition: CIHR Operating Grant: COVID-19 Rapid Research Funding Opportunity – Diagnostics

Funders: CIHR; MSFHR

End of award update – January 2022

Most exciting outputs
We have developed a prototype device able to test for viral pathogens in spit. This device can report results easily over the internet and has many potential rapid testing applications.

Impact so far
Reliable and inexpensive point of care diagnostic technology is extremely important during a pandemic for both primary and community health care. As can be seen with the explosive spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant, RT-PCR test centers are overwhelmed and there is no coherent way to report point of care test results to centralized government agencies. We have developed an inexpensive (< $100 if mass produced) point of care instrument that via the internet can simply and reliably report test results to centralized data centers. This device accepts modular test cartridges, which could, with further development, offer a broad range of test services at low cost. Such a device has many uses, but could easily be imagined to play an important role in rural and remove health care locations in the future. While now only a proof of principle prototype, future investment should result in a device able to provide a health benefit to BC citizens.

Potential future influence
Inexpensive point of care tests are difficult to develop and implement. Our device offers a potential solution to this global problem.

Next steps
We are seeking further investments by third parties to commercialize our prototype technology.

Useful link
Laboratory website: https://www.rnabiochemistry.com/

A resident/family-centered, team-based quality improvement collaborative approach to comprehensive pandemic preparedness in long-term care homes

Dr. Akber Mithani’s team is one of two BC research teams being co-funded by MSFHR and the BC Ministry of Health, and supported by the BC Patient Safety & Quality Council, as part of the Implementation Science Teams – Strengthening Pandemic Preparedness in Long-Term Care Initiative led by the Canadian Foundation for Healthcare Improvement (CFHI) and the Canadian Patient Safety Institute.

Practices that show promise to improve response to the COVID-19 pandemic in long-term care homes need to be quickly implemented. These practices relate to outbreak preparation, prevention and response; COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 care; staffing; and presence of family.  

Our research team will study the experiences of long-term care teams as they conduct projects to implement promising practices to address gaps in their pandemic response. The teams will include residents, family, staff and management in six long-term care homes across Fraser Health. They will use a shared approach involving quality improvement training, engagement support, and the use of an online app to share learning between homes.

Key questions to be answered are:

  1. How can an online shared approach be used by team members within long-term care homes to improve pandemic response?
  2. How can this approach help in knowledge sharing across long-term care homes to promote best practices in pandemic response?

The lessons learned from the projects will inform strategies for pandemic response, which will be shared with other long term care homes across Fraser Health. The findings of this study will add to the efforts of 14 research teams across Canada as part of a larger initiative aiming to improve pandemic response in long-term care.

Funding Competition: CFHI-led Implementation Science Teams (IST) – Strengthening Pandemic Preparedness in Long-Term Care (LTC) Funding Opportunity

Funders: MSFHR; BC Ministry of Health

Implementation of the “one high risk site only” policy – its impact on staff, family and LTC residents

Dr. Joanie Sims-Gould’s team is one of two BC research teams being co-funded by MSFHR and the BC Ministry of Health, and supported by the BC Patient Safety & Quality Council, as part of the Implementation Science Teams – Strengthening Pandemic Preparedness in Long-Term Care Initiative led by the Canadian Foundation for Healthcare Improvement (CFHI) and the Canadian Patient Safety Institute.

It is essential that we stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus in long-term care. The Public Health Agency of Canada instituted evidence-based, rapid redesign and resource redeployment practices to protect the health and ensure the safety of staff, residents and their families. Measures included strict visitation and “one high risk site” staffing policies, prohibiting LTC staff from employment in more than one facility. Our mixed methods, exploratory study will focus on implementation and impact of the “one high risk site” staffing policy on staff, family and residents in 4 LTC facilities in 2 British Columbia health authorities. We are guided by the Consolidated Framework for Implementation Research (CFIR). 

We have the necessary expertise to conduct this study that spans implementation science, LTC, quantitative and qualitative methods and knowledge translation (KT). Our team includes early (Havaei – co-PI, Hung), mid-career (Sims-Gould – PI) and established (Macphee, Phinney, Robinovitch, McKay) researchers, and trainees (Franke, Staempfli) together with committed and passionate LTC administrators (Keselman, Lee, Kirk, Strath), senior health authority executives (Mak, Sorensen) and Min of Health (Neilson) partners and KU. Two collaborators offer expertise in implementation measures (Lewis) and national LTC policy (Tamblyn-Watts).

Short-term outcomes: Knowledge users are positioned to immediately translate evidence into practice to inform LTC improvements at the facility level. We will share results through the LTC+ Acting on Pandemic Learning Together Initiative. Facilities that signed up to participate in this initiative have immediate access to results of our study across jurisdictions.

Long-term outcomes: Lessons learned about positive and negative consequences of the “one high risk site” policy can be applied in other jurisdictions. We will provide a roadmap to effectively implement future policies in response to COVID-19 in LTC settings. Partnerships we develop foster future collaborations and capacity building among academics and the LTC sector.

Funding competition: CFHI-led Implementation Science Teams (IST) – Strengthening Pandemic Preparedness in Long-Term Care (LTC) Funding Opportunity

Funders: MSFHR; BC Ministry of Health

Evaluation of innovative risk mitigation services in the context of dual crises of COVID-19 and overdose among people who use opioids in Vancouver, BC

Through funding from the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR) and MSFHR, Principal Investigators Dr. Kanna Hayashi, Research Scientist at the BC Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU) and St. Paul’s Hospital Chair in Substance Use Research and Assistant professor in the Faculty of Health Science at Simon Fraser University (SFU) along with Dr. Kora DeBeck, Research Scientist at the BCCSU and Associate Professor in the SFU School of Public Policy aim to conduct preliminary evaluation of two novel measures introduced by the BC government in March 2020 to address the dual crisis of overdose and COVID-19.

Specifically, these measures include expanding the opioid agonist treatment (OAT) prescription guidelines and pandemic prescribing of pharmaceuticals (e.g. opioids) to people who use illicit drugs. By providing pharmaceutical alternatives to the toxic illicit drug supply, the interventions are intended to reduce physical encounters involved in obtaining illicit drugs and the use of toxic street drugs, thereby supporting both overdose and COVID-19 prevention efforts. To date, however, the impacts of these interventions have not been evaluated.

The proposed BC-based research aims to fill critical knowledge gaps by examining the reach and preliminary impacts of pandemic prescribing and expanded OAT prescription services among people who use opioids in urban Vancouver. Through this work, the research team, which consists of highly productive investigators and knowledge users with direct clinical and policy expertise, seeks to inform efforts to improve the delivery and effectiveness of the interventions.

Funding Competition: CIHR Operating Grant: COVID-19 Mental Health & Substance Use Service Needs and Delivery Funding Opportunity

Funders: CIHR; MSFHR

Tracking the Prevalence and Incidence of Modifiable Suicide Risk Factors During the COVID-19 Pandemic to Inform Targeted Suicide Prevention in British Columbia

Problem: Half of Canadians report worsened mental health since the COVID-19 pandemic began disrupting our lives this Spring. These impacts, combined with rising prevalence of known suicide risk factors such as unemployment and financial hardship, social isolation, alcohol and substance use, relationship strain and domestic violence, have raised concerns that of rising suicide risk in the Canadian population. Canada loses 3,800 to 4,500 lives to suicide each year. Suicide death and bereavement confer long-term psychological and social risk to families and communities. A small increase in suicide rate can thus result not only in excess loss of life, above and beyond the direct impacts of the pandemic, but also confer long-term vulnerability in our communities.

Research: In collaboration with an international team of researchers led by investigators Shanaya Rathod and Peter Phiri in the UK, our Canadian team aims to characterize the specific mental health and related cognitive impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic to inform evidence-based policy that can mitigate secondary mental health and suicide risk. We will conduct three pan-Canadian general population surveys, in September 2020, December 2020, and March 2021. For each survey, we will recruit at least 5,000 community adults, balanced by sex, age, and geographic region. Surveys will focus on Canadians' emotional, physical, and cognitive wellbeing across distinct phases of the pandemic. In addition, we will work with mental health service leaders, providers and users to co-create supplemental surveys to assess the mental health experiences and needs of three potentially vulnerable groups: frontline health workers, Indigenous peoples, and people living in rural or remote areas. Our results can inform mental health strategies by identifying where, with whom, and what kind of intervention is needed to effectively reduce suicide risk in the population. Support from MSFHR and the BC Ministry of Health will enable us to over-sample British Columbians so that we can understand mental health needs within this province and identify sectors or populations with mental health needs.

Research Team: Our interdisciplinary research team, led by Co-PIs Brianna Turner, Theone Paterson, and Chris Lalonde, includes psychology, social work, and sociology researchers, as well as community knowledge users representing the United Way of the Lower Mainland, the Ontario Association of Social Workers, and the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Website: https://onlineacademiccommunity.uvic.ca/covidmentalhealth

Funding Competition: CIHR Operating Grant: COVID-19 Mental Health & Substance Use Service Needs and Delivery Funding Opportunity

Funders: CIHR; MSFHR

Keywords: Suicide Prevention, Mental Health, Sleep, Depression, Substance Use, Social Connectedness, Public Health, Survey

Addressing the dual public health crises of COVID-19 and overdose

A team led by Dr. Amanda Slaunwhite, Senior Scientist with the BC Centre for Disease Control and an adjunct professor in the School of Population and Public Health, were awarded $75,000 from the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research and $777,439 from CIHR as part of the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Rapid Research Funding Opportunity. The researchers will assess the impact of the new risk-mitigation guidance that permits prescribing of pharmaceutical alternatives to the toxic drug supply. Researchers will determine the effects of the pandemic and risk mitigation measures on COVID-19 infection, continuity of care for treatment of substance use disorders and non-fatal and fatal overdose in BC. The researchers will also identify barriers and facilitators to implementation from the perspectives of people who use substances, prescribers, harm reduction workers, and other providers and community members.

The team is led by principal investigators at UBC, the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research (CISUR) at the University of Victoria (Dr. Bernie Pauly and Dr. Karen Urbanoski) and Simon Fraser University (Dr. Bohdan Nosyk and Dr. Natt Hongdilokkul). The team includes co-investigators and collaborators from the First Nations Health Authority, Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions, BC Centre on Substance Use, the BCCDC-based Compassion Inclusion and Engagement (CIE) (PEEP) peer network, Provincial Health Services Authority, BC-Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors and Public Health Agency of Canada.

Funding Competition: CIHR Operating Grant: COVID-19 Rapid Research Funding Opportunity – Social Policy and Public Health Responses

Funders: CIHR; MSFHR

Extracellular vesicle associated glycans as a novel platform for breast cancer detection

Breast cancer is the most common cancer amongst women in Canada. Breast cancer cells shed tiny pieces of themselves into the blood stream called extracellular vesicles. These tiny pieces, or cell fragments, are different from those of a healthy breast cell and we think they could be used to detect a breast cancer at its earliest stage. Importantly, we can isolate and study these fragments from the blood of healthy females and breast cancer patients. We think that by looking at the sugars and proteins they contain we will find markers that could help in the detection of breast cancer. We are also going to look at tumor cell fragments from patients whose cancer came back years after treatment, a process known as metastasis, and find unique markers that could predict this outcome. By identifying breast cancer early and figuring out whose at risk for a having their cancer come back we can improve how women are treated and reduce the chances of the cancer coming back.

MSFHR is providing match funding to the glycomics-based early cancer detection project which is funded by the Canadian Glycomics Network through a GlycoNet Collaborative Team Grant. This Pan-Canadian project involves research teams in British Columbia and Alberta. Dr. Williams, lead PI, is an assistant professor at UBC’s Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences and her team includes clinical pathologist Dr. Peter Watson (BC Cancer) and Professor of Chemistry Dr. Lara Mahal (University of Alberta).


End of award update: November 2021

Following the end of her award term, Dr. Williams has provided the following brief update on this project’s progress.

Most exciting outputs:
Our project successfully isolated small cell fragments, termed extracellular vesicles, from blood plasma of hundreds of breast cancer patients and healthy females. From this, we were able to look at the sugars and proteins on these fragments to identify ones unique to breast cancer patients. This has allowed us to find a couple unique markers that we think can be used to identify breast cancer at its earliest stage of development.

Impact so far:
Detecting cancer at the earliest stage will support the best outcome for patients. This is particularly relevant in breast cancer as it is well established that a disease diagnosis at an early stage, Stage I, is associated with the highest rates of patient survival. Our project has identified novel sugar and protein based biomarkers with utility in identifying breast cancer. Validation of newly identified biomarkers could lead to the development of a blood-based test for breast cancer screening.

Potential future influence:
Our project aims to reduce the mortality associated with a breast cancer diagnosis. To do this we are aiming to develop a non-invasive test that will support the detection of breast cancer at its earliest stage.

Next steps:
We plan to validate our newly discovered breast cancer biomarkers and work towards translating our results into a product that could be used as a simple point-of-care test by a family doctor.

Please visit GlycoNet to learn more about this project.