Ontario Health Study hits major milestone

Caitlin McCormack
Shine On
April 11, 2012
woman completing the Ontario Health Study online
woman completing the Ontario Health Study online

If you ride the subway in Toronto, you may have seen ads for the last year or so advertising the Ontario Health Study, an online-based research project that asks people in the province to answer online questions to help understand how various factors influence the population's health.

Just recently, the study reached a major milestone of nearly 200,000 participants, making it the largest single health study in Canadian history.

"This is both the largest-scale study ever undertaken in North America and the first in the world to be totally online," notes Lyle Palmer, executive scientific director of the study, who left behind a prestigious career in Australia to head up the OHS

"It was the chance to do something that was big-vision science, a project that would be of international significance and that had the potential both to change the way we do medical research and how we translate new knowledge to directly impact on individual patients and on population health."

Thanks to its innovative online format, Palmer says researchers have been able to reach a very broad, representative sample of Ontario's society — including large numbers of young adults.

[See also: Seven medical myths]

"The ultimate goal of the Ontario Health Study is to better understand common diseases," he says, and to ultimately understand how to best treat and prevent disease. "Study findings will also lead to improved care for patients and health-care policy changes."

The study is also unique in its timeline — it's been designed to go on forever, tracking participants throughout the course of their lives.

"This means that we will be able to track the development of diseases such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and depression," says Palmer.

The study is a province-wide effort, with over 320 senior researchers and every university and teaching hospital in Ontario involved. Researchers are hoping to have 1,000,000 participants take part, with the first round of follow-ups beginning in May 2012.

Researchers are able to draw from the data collected at any time. "Some of the research currently underway includes a study of social characteristics and the role they play in determining mental health and a study investigating multiple generations of families to identify molecular signatures of health risk," shares Palmer.

In-person assessment centres are the next-step for the study, with the first one opening in Toronto in May, with other locations to follow. Those who've completed the online questionnaire can then visit a centre to give physical measurements such as heart function tests and blood samples.

"It's a great opportunity for participants to learn more about themselves while sharing valuable information that will help researchers in Canada and around the world."

If you'd like to participate in the study, visit the OHS website.

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