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Interview with Dr. Ahmed Firas Khalid


📷 McMaster Health Forum

Journalist: Omer Abdullah Choudhry



Omer Choudhry: Welcome back to SciSection today, we are joined by a medical doctor, health policy researcher, and advisor, and professor in the faculty of human and social sciences at Laurier, McMaster and York. Dr. Khalid for us, call it glad to have you, do you mind telling us a bit about yourself.


Dr. Firas Khalid: Really happy to be here today. My name, as you said, is Firas Khalid. I like to go with my second first name. My parents gave me two first names, which made my life a lot more

complicated than I imagined. I do teach at the human and health sciences at Wilfrid Laurier, but I also teach in the health policy at York university and the political science department here at McMaster. So different faculties, different departments, but all around health policy specifically, and looking at ways to educate students in more innovative, engaging ways around health policy, major themes in Canada.


Omer Choudhry: Yeah, that's very cool. If it's okay with you, I'm just going to start by asking for your permission. Do you give me permission to record this interview and broadcast it on radio CFMU and podcast platforms, Apple, Google, Spotify, et cetera, and edit for cohesion? Absolutely. Thank you very much. So doctor you wrote a very interesting article about a very important issue right now throughout the world the coronavirus and would you mind explaining kind of the focus of that article for our listeners who maybe have not read the article or seen it yet... about kind of what you talked about within it?


Dr. Firas Khalid: So the article I wrote on the conversation is about five ways that evidence can be used to help us combat the Coronavirus - the current outbreak. It really stems from my work and my PhD in health policy at McMaster university, where I looked at ways that we can support the use of evidence in crisis zones. And so crisis zones are similar to what's going on right now with coronavirus. For four years or so I spent I published three articles that really tried to get at the core of how can we make sure that evidence gets the hands of decision makers or dealing with a crisis like coronavirus in real time, in a manner that is accessible, easy to understand, free of jargon and that allows them to inform their decision better when it comes to interventions, humanitarian aid.


Omer Choudhry: And it was really interesting how that perspective was brought up, especially, for people who may not be as familiar with looking at issues from that lens. So maybe, first years such as myself, for undergraduates who aren't necessarily, we don't have the experience that you do in this field to be able to read that about such a relevant issue that we've all heard by now, at this point, it's important to be able to have those avenues that we can learn more about it. And it was really well-written. So one of the other questions I had for you as someone who's had such a large long experience as a health policy researcher is, what is it like for you to be going through this stage where everyone is constantly asking questions about the Coronavirus? Everyone wants to know, what's the cause? what's the effect? and many other questions, but in your opinion, what is the things that you feel, uh, you know, you've had to repeat the most, it'd be like, Hey guys, focus on this part of it when you're first introducing kind of the issue or the questions that they have for you.


Dr. Firas Khalid: I mean the first thing I would say is that I feel like, although I've been doing health policy for a very long time in the sense that I started my career at the age of 17, 18 at the world health organization in Geneva, looking at health policy issues in relation to maternal and child health, I've only really become sort of, uh, immersed in this field due to my PhD in health policy here at Mac. So the four years training with profound, amazing professors and courses, and my thesis itself really gave me the expertise that I need to think about, uh, more systematically and more of a system level on how we address a health policy issue. So to answer your question on what's the big takeaway message when it comes to Coronavirus, I think the five things that I keep saying is, hand hygiene. So washing your hands for 20 seconds. Protecting yourself and the environment around you from other hazards that can come into contact. So people who travel to areas that we are worried about, you should be conscious of it, monitor your symptoms, contact the healthcare provider, if you develop those symptoms. And lastly, I think this idea of social isolation now is becoming a big thing. So, you know, maintaining as little, contact with large group of people,, we're going to see more and more emphasis on that. I think the Canadian government is doing an excellent job of communicating that knowledge. So that would be my take home message, protect yourself and others around you.


Omer Choudhry: Yeah and a lot of those points you mentioned are really great. So as someone who watches sports, like I've seen how you mentioned avoiding large gatherings, a lot of teams now, a lot of organizations, you know, the national basketball association, the national football association are really, you know, focusing on that idea that you brought up, not having fans show up to games anymore because, it will limit contact or not having players sign autographs for a short period of time now but, it's super important. And even, to be able to keep these things in mind, moving forward, for people who may not have heard this advice is really important and very, very helpful information. Indeed,


Dr. Firas Khalid: We're seeing that also an increase in the number of conferences being canceled. We got an email yesterday, our, the Casper, which is our Canadian, health policy conference that happens annually. It's the big symposium where people in Canada come to, to discuss health policy issues as officially canceled. And I think there will be a tendency to cancel more and more of those large gatherings. And to be honest, I don't think that's necessarily a bad idea. I think that, you know, if we can just make sure that we contain the spread of the virus now, why not? I think that if, you know, if the conference can be unlimited and move it online, that'd be a great idea. And we're seeing the academic institutions, including McMaster has really tried to step up its online efforts to ensure that people, students don't need to come to campus. If that time comes, we're not there yet. The risk level is still low in Canada and maintains low for the time being.


Omer Choudhry: For sure that's also another great point of, the support we have not only at McMaster, but the government is giving us we're really lucky to be here and one other point I wanted to bring up was, leading me into my next question how important of a role does research play at this stage of an outbreak such as this? You may have heard of how Italy, for example, great healthcare system, a lot of research going on around there, but, now it's being closed off totally because of the Coronavirus spread. So I wanted to ask you about what your opinion is on this subject of how important research plays at this role and what really you think about this.


Dr. Firas Khalid: I mean, this is a great question because it's a question I've been reflecting about for a very long time now is what role does research really play in this? I mean, obviously my work is around supporting the use of research evidence. I actually argued in my scholarly work that we need to rethink the way we produce research evidence. So I'm not sure that we need more research evidence when it comes to crisis zones. What we need is better way support what already exists. There are countless numbers of research evidence out there. We just have to find that link between the research evidence and its use in practice and policy. That's one number two. I think one of the big things that this Coronavirus is showing us is that we're very good at doing retrospective studies. So, looking at things after they happen or preparing us, for the future, in some sense, by looking at learning lessons, I don't think we're still at the point where we're able to look at the data or the existing research evidence to, um, sort of project current right now, situations and analysis. And I think that's something in the crisis world. People are thinking a lot about and investing time on. So how do we build capacity with our own healthcare system and our workers so that they're able to understand research evidence in a very fast way to address a current crisis? How do we prepare ourselves for the next epidemic? I think that's going to be the conversation now. So we've had SARS and because of SARS, we're not in a bad shape when it comes to Coronavirus. The real question that we'll test now is are we learning, are we capturing the lessons from this corner? A virus outbreak that we can use for the future epidemic? Because the reality is we're Coronavirus is only one of many more that will come our way.


Omer Choudhry: Yes. And that's an amazing way to look at it. You know, it's not just as one problem we're fighting. Some people tend to overlook that issue as well when it comes to the hard work that people in different fields, for example, you know, how health policy, as well as what the government's doing in general. We have to be able to look at the bigger picture of things that we're not only trying to protect people now, but generations down the line trying to do as much as we can. So certainly definitely agree with that point. And that's an amazing, thing that we're able to do at this point. Uh, even though sometimes it takes some heat from some people where they don't understand completely, “Hey, why aren't you doing this, this and this right now”, but we have to be able to think for the long term, to see what benefits us most which kind of leads me into my next question about the long term. Is there any advice you would be able to give someone who's interested in the field of studying viruses like the Coronavirus? Maybe if you've heard of what type of challenges arise, you know, pretty often in this field or if you have, anything to tell them about what it's like to handle situations when it comes to working hard to find solutions to viruses such as this.


Dr. Firas Khalid: My favorite tweet recently that I read was from former president Barack Obama, where he said, stay calm and follow the science. And I think, I think for me, that really resonates because as somebody who's done a lot of his degrees in science, I do believe that if you're thinking about how you can play a role in the future epidemics like the Coronavirus, and to be clear, it's more of an outbreak than an epidemic. I think follow “the science”. So immerse yourself in, in, in the biochemistry and the molecular molecular biology of how this virus has come about and how to treat them but also don't limit yourself there. I think we need to, again and again, find better ways to, translate that knowledge and that research evidence so that it actually makes an impact in the field. I think this is where the, the, the, the discourse is going to be at and I think a lot of academic institutions are now pushing themselves to have more community outreach. And by that, I mean, they're connecting with people in the field to make sure that the knowledge they're producing, at our academic institutions is actually addressing what people are looking for.


Omer Choudhry: That's a great point. And I definitely agree with that and really kind of sets that message and sends it home of, what it's like to be studying in science. You have to have faith in what you're studying and have the work ethic to be able to understand that you may not get it now, but along the road, you will definitely understand the importance of it as well as what it's trying to tell you. So that concludes this week's segment. Thank you so much for your time today. We really appreciated having you and for all our listeners, be sure to tune in next week for our next segment. Thank you.


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