In this issue of CCA News, we speak with Annette M. Cormier O’Connor, FRSC, FCAHS, Distinguished Professor and Professor Emerita in the School of Nursing, Faculty of Health Sciences, at the University of Ottawa. Professor O’Connor is Chair of the Expert Panel on Effectiveness of Health Risk Communication, one of our newest assessments in our growing health portfolio. Professor O’Connor’s research has contributed to a new field in health science known as “shared decision-making” between patients and health professionals.
Q: What drew you to the Council and/or this assessment, as an Expert Panel Chair?
A: As a Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences and the Royal Society, I was looking for an opportunity to “give back” to Canada and Canadians, who have supported my education and research. The field of Health Risk Communication is a close cousin to Shared Medical Decision Making, sharing common frameworks, measures, and methods. This was a great chance to address an important need. I was also impressed with the friendly, superbly organized, and knowledgeable Council staff who are supporting the Risk Communication experts in this assessment.
Q: You’ve done important work in the areas of international consensus-building and decision aids (which are the tools patients use to help them make difficult decisions about treatment). Could you tell us about some highlights?
A: As decision aids moved from a research cottage industry to commercial production and use in health care, setting standards for their development and evaluation became crucial. We built a network of 100 stakeholders (researchers, practitioners, consumer groups, policy-makers) from 14 countries to identify criteria for judging the quality of decision aids. These criteria were summarized in a checklist. Ten years later, the standards continue to be updated as new discoveries are made regarding best practices for supporting patients’ decisions.
Q: What do you feel is the future of the science related to patient decision aids and shared decision-making?
A: I started my career at a time when patients had limited information, no presentation of “options,” and minimal participation in decision-making. Now, patients have too much information, too many options, and greater expectations for participation. Moreover, face-time with health care practitioners is more limited and the scientific evidence on health care options can have the shelf life of a banana. The challenge for the next generation is to find better ways to present these complex options effectively for diverse populations, to build “just in time” delivery systems that are seamlessly integrated into health services, and to respond to rapidly changing evidence.
Q: Throughout your career, how did you approach mentoring younger researchers and health care professionals? What values do you most wish to instill in those following in your path?
A: My “research compass” found its true direction when I stopped imitating others, looked up from the papers and the data, and asked myself, “How can I help people make better decisions and help practitioners provide better decision support?” We need to foster the next generation’s curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking so that they can find their own research compass. Integrity and accountability are essential. So is respect for diverse disciplines in fundamental and applied sciences. You can’t understand and address complex problems without their complementary knowledge and skills. In my field, diverse disciplines were needed to move the state of knowledge from the decision lab, to trials of decision aids, to health service implementation and health policy projects.