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Digging into Data

June 2, 2023 — 

Since working as a research assistant during her undergraduate studies, Dr. Christine Leong [B.Sc./06, B.Sc.Pharm/10], now associate professor in the College of Pharmacy, has been drawn to data.

“I really like the process of collecting data and seeing the story behind it,” Leong says. “When I started the PharmD program at the University of Toronto, doing various clinical rotations, I noticed a lot of gaps in knowledge. I felt like research was a great tool to address those gaps.”

Leong grew up in Winnipeg and earned her bachelor’s degree in pharmacy at UM. She joined the faculty in 2013, is cross-appointed in the department of psychiatry, and is a researcher with the Children’s Hospital Research Institute of Manitoba. She appreciates that Manitoba has a world-class repository of rich, anonymized health data.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Leong wanted to determine what impact the virus was having on prescriptions for psychotropic medications.

Using health databases housed at the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy at UM, she and her team found that in the three months after pandemic public-health restrictions took effect in 2020, new prescriptions for antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications significantly declined.

Then, near the end of 2020, as they reported in the study in Frontiers in Pharmacology, the researchers saw a spike in new prescriptions for antidepressants and anti-psychotics in women and older adults.

Leong suspects that during the uncertain times early in the pandemic, patients were seeking stability, and that made them less likely to switch or start new medications.

“Then, near the end of 2020, the increase in prescriptions for women may reflect that women’s mental health was under more strain than men’s from pressures such as home-schooling children, juggling child-care and working from home.

“A possible reason for the rise in prescriptions for older adults is that during the pandemic they had reduced access to non-drug supports, such as companionship and psychosocial therapy.”

Although the data can’t reveal the reasons for the dip and surge in prescriptions, Leong says, this kind of study is important for uncovering whether a global event like the pandemic changes prescription patterns. This knowledge can point researchers to questions for further study.

The next step in this project, she says, is to try to understand why certain populations are accessing medications but not going for follow-up care.

“In older adults, for example, antipsychotic drug use has to be evaluated every three months because of the risk of side effects. Since we saw a rise in antipsychotic prescriptions toward the end of 2020, we want to know whether those prescriptions were evaluated regularly.”

Leong’s overall goal is for her research to influence public policy and improve access to services like mental health care.

She is currently training 25 community pharmacists in mental health first aid. This form of care aims to help a person who is experiencing worsening mental health problems until they can find long-term treatment.

“Pharmacists often encounter patients who are experiencing a mental health crisis. I wanted to provide this training so they can identify when someone is experiencing a deterioration in mental health and connect them to resources.”

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