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Ryerson set to launch PhD in urban health next year

by Alex Cyr

Program’s timing bodes well amid rising need for health services due to COVID-19

Daphne Cockwell Complex artist rendering
New PhD program in Urban Health courses will take place in the Daphne Cockwell Complex (Ryersonian file photo).

Ryerson’s newest doctoral program is set to launch in January 2021. 

The new PhD in urban health, offered by the Daphne Cockwell School of Nursing (DCSN), will aim to explain how the urban context may impact health, and identify evidence-based strategies for addressing health-related issues. 

Eventual students in the program will aim to solve these issues by integrating disciplines including nursing, medicine, social work and pharmacy, early childcare studies, geography, urban development and disability studies.

“Many programs touch on urban health, but this is the first one to be completely focused on it — it’s unique,” said Prof. Suzanne Fredericks, one of the program’s creators.

Fredericks, a professor at the DCSN and clinical scientist at the Toronto General Research Institute, said she and her team of co-founders — all esteemed professors, researchers or health clinicians — originally wanted to create a PhD program in nursing. However, the government of Ontario would not fund such a program, said Fredericks, because other universities in the province already offered a PhD in nursing. To secure funding, Ryerson’s new program would have to be novel and unique. Instead of giving up, Fredericks and the board went to work.

“We did an environmental scan and spoke with colleagues internationally,” she said. “We asked, ‘what program would be helpful in the Canadian context and global market?’ The evidence showed there was a need to study urban health.”

Urban health, said Fredericks, is a broad discipline, and sometimes one that can be difficult to neatly define. 

“It can be tackling problems like homelessness or food insecurities,” she said, “but it can also be working with road safety, about the policies that exist around wearing a helmet on the road, or dealing with the health status of refugees… it can be more than just working with hospitals.” 

Preparing students for a plethora of possible jobs and roles can be complicated, but Fredericks said her own extensive research makes her confident in the program. She and her team asked hospital CEOs across Ontario what they looked for in prospective employees. 

“We showed them (our curriculum) and asked them, ‘would you hire a person who graduated from this program?’” said Fredericks. “’And if not, how can we create the ideal candidate?’ We made a program based on the characteristics they gave us.”

Fredericks said a key characteristic that is in high demand in the workplace is independent scientific thinking. As a result, one of the program’s main goals is to equip its students with the ability to understand abstract concepts and apply them to the rigours of research.

“We want to shape these students into scientists… who can eventually take on president or VP type positions.” 

Five students will be admitted into the program in January of 2021, with the second wave scheduled for September 2022. The selection for the first cohort is ongoing. According to Fredericks, “it has been very competitive.”

In the program, students will be required to pass a candidacy exam and propose an original dissertation after their second year, and then to write and defend that dissertation by their fourth year.

Program director Christina Catallo said they are looking for four key attributes when selecting successful applicants. 

“Someone who is a big picture thinker, is creative, and is concerned about the community and issues related to urban health,” she said. “Someone who understands that in order to solve a complex issue, you need many different voices at the table and cannot operate in a silo.”

Catallo, an associate professor who researches knowledge brokering practices among health-care organizations, said the main strength of the program is how it transcends disciplines that are traditionally thought of as separate. She said this level of integration is made possible by recruiting a combination of professors from faculties across campus. She said the wide range of expertise should grant eventual students the choice to tackle a wide range of projects. 

And in the middle of a global pandemic, there is no shortage of urban health-related projects to tackle and problems to solve. 

“The pandemic adds a different layer,” said Catallo. “Health inequities will only be exacerbated. We are seeing some new complexities, and old problems students try to address are becoming more faceted.”

The opioid crisis, homelessness and inequities within vulnerable populations are all problems Catallo hopes the program’s eventual students will tackle, locally and globally.

“The need for more health-related services is much higher than what we’ve planned for… and that’s true at the world level and the Toronto level… in that sense this program is developing at the right time.”

This article may have been created with the use of AI software such as Google Docs, Grammarly, and/or Otter.ai for transcription.

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