Taking an innovative and far-reaching approach to medical research, Ontario has launched an online study that it hopes will eventually track up to 30 per cent of the province’s 9.5 million adults throughout their life. Directed by Professor Lyle Palmer of U of T’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, the Ontario Health Study is the largest of its kind ever attempted in North America, and could, if successful, be the largest in the world. “No other study has attempted to engage an entire society in the way we are trying to engage the entire province of Ontario – and no one has tried to do it online before,” says Palmer.
By asking participants to answer questions about their health and personal history online (at ontariohealthstudy.ca) organizers hope to create a comprehensive database that will allow researchers to track the many different factors – social, genetic, environmental – that influence a whole spectrum of diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, asthma and Alzheimer’s.
Because the data being gathered is so comprehensive and the study so large, scientists expect it to yield research findings that will translate into better health policy, health promotion and clinical practice. “If we are successful in recruiting the number of participants we are aiming for,” says Palmer, “it will put Ontario at the forefront of biomedical research internationally across a broad range of disciplines.” Involving more than 70 U of T faculty and clinicians, the study will track participants using follow-up questionnaires (there’ll be at least one a year) and, in some cases, physical exams at mobile mini-clinics or a central Assessment Centre in Toronto. A pilot mini-clinic was scheduled for June and the Assessment Centre is expected to open in September.
At the moment, though, the study’s focus is on swelling the ranks of the more than 30,000 people already enrolled. “We are currently focused on engaging as many people as possible and getting them excited about the study,” says Palmer.
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