OHS study biggest success yet

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Over 183,000 Ontarians have joined the Ontario Health Study (OHS), designed to help scientists understand the complex factors behind heart disease, cancer, diabetes and other common diseases. Such a large number of participants makes the OHS study the single largest study completed in Canadian history – and the number of participants just keeps getting bigger.

The epidemical longitudinal study began in September 2010 and since then it has been growing in popularity. Bill Bobek, senior communications manager for the OHS, explained that he believed the immense popularity was due to the fact that this is the first online health survey of its kind.

This online accessibility has drastically increased the number of participants in the survey. “There’s a number of young people that have taken part in this study,” Bobek explained. “Probably the most ever. I think right now we’re at about 27, 792 18 to 29-year-olds that have completed the online questionnaire.”
The participation of the younger generation, where the lowest participants are 18 years of age, is what Bobek termed as a gold mine for health science researchers. “It’s always been very, very difficult to get young people to participate in health studies,” Bobek said.

With such young participants, researchers can see who stays healthy and why, and what factors influence their health. “In a sense, it’s a [researcher’s] opportunity to look at the determinates of all sorts of various diseases,” Bobek continued. “Why does somebody who has smoked [once] get cancer and somebody who has smoked 40 years not get cancer?”

York University has been a vital player in the OHS since the beginning. “We’ve been recruiting since last September,” said Andrea England, the director of research and partnerships at York.

“But as scientists we’ve been involved since the inception, actually since even before the OHS we were involved, York helped to create the pilot study and then when the study itself launched about three years ago we’ve been involved since then too.”

One of the greatest benefits of this online study, aside from the obvious insight into medical examination, was the infrastructure that makes it extremely economically feasible. “When you’re working this study, you have given permission to be re-contacted,” added Bobek. “So it’s the idea that we can go back and forth with other questionnaires over the years and there is no cost.”
With other studies that are completed through the traditional mail system, Bobek explained that this can not only be frustrating, but costly.

“[There’s] mailing out, mailing back, the taking of that information, then putting that information into a database that can be accessed, which means going from paper to online or computer.”

The fact that the OHS is online is advantageous because people are able to log on and go back and update it year to year. “You won’t remember what you answered the first year,” Bobek said.

“So you get into actually identifying things you may have forgotten the first time, or things that get self-corrected in time or things have changed with you so those sort of things that are all part of that questioning process.”
England added that, “It’s going to be a fabulous resource for researchers because Ontario and Canadian researchers can apply the data for years to come.”

Information from participants is anonymous and de-identified when researchers receive it. They will be recognized as taking part in the study, but no specific details would be given. The OHS according to Bobek, is adhering to probably the strongest data privacy that they could access.

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