Featured Heart health Research

How collecting demographic data can improve health outcomes

Written by Alexis Dobranowski

As a cardiologist, Dr. Dennis Ko knows that people who are South Asian or East Asian have different risks of heart disease. As a healthcare researcher, Dr. Ko wants to understand more and find ways to help.

“My late mentor Dr. Jack Tu had a long-standing interest in cardiovascular outcomes research with respect to ethnic background given that we live in such a diverse country,” he said. “We need to do more research so that we know what is happening, and so we can find the best ways to prevent disease and care for patients from different backgrounds.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Ko worked with a team to look at how COVID-19 affects people with different ethnic backgrounds.

But, he says, conducting this kind of work isn’t easy.

“It’s difficult to do because of the lack of data,” Dr. Ko says. “There’s no standardized way of collecting demographic data such as race and ethnic background, and that lack of information makes it really hard. Maybe this stems from fear of stigmatization. But more data is important so that we can find out what is happening and we can design ways to help.”

He says while many healthcare institutions have shied away from collecting demographic data in the past, it’s important that we find an appropriate way of asking for this information.

Dr. Ko says there are increasing conversations happening across Canada about how important this data is, and how to start to collecting and using it. Here in Toronto, Sunnybrook is working together with partners to ensure our efforts to collect and use demographic data are aligned across the system, and are designed to support action and accountability.

A pilot survey has launched on several units, wherein patients are asked to self-identify their ethnic background. Dr. Ko says it’s a step in the right direction.

“Without adequate data, we are just guessing around outcomes and needs,” Dr. Ko said.

With COVID-19, for example, it became clear quite quickly that some groups of people had poorer outcomes.

“Early in the pandemic, in long-term care homes, more Chinese seniors were impacted by COVID. In the community and workplaces, large numbers of South Asian men contracted the virus,” Dr. Ko explained. “This is really important information.”

“Toronto is so diverse, people come from many places and countries and we try to accept and celebrate each other’s differences. We know there are differences in health outcomes among people based on their ethnicity, but we lack the data to really understand why. By collecting that data and doing the research, we can then better determine ways to ensure everyone has access to the prevention programs, screening and care they need.”

Dr. Ko says Asian Heritage Month is a good time to reflect on this and to celebrate members of the Asian community who have made valuable contributions to the field of medicine.

“I have been afforded wonderful opportunities in Canada. I feel that it is important to have a chance to celebrate and value our diversity.”

About the author

Alexis Dobranowski

Alexis Dobranowski is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.