Back

Research trainee Jenna Wong uses big data to answer big questions about health

Few doctoral students get to see one of their research papers covered by dozens of media outlets. However, when epidemiology student Jenna Wong published her work on antidepressant prescription indications, the media were quick to bite. Jenna, who originally hails from Ontario, works with Dr. Robyn Tamblyn, a researcher at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC) and member of the Metabolic Disorders and Complications Program (MeDiC) and Centre for Outcomes Research and Evaluation (CORE).

Besides earning media attention for her work, Jenna was one of three research trainees in Canada to receive the 2017 Rising Star Award from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research—Institute of Health Services and Policy Research. It’s another tribute to the resourcefulness she has shown in exploring a research question with broad implications for Canadian health services.

After getting her master’s degree in epidemiology from the University of Ottawa, Jenna worked at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES) in Ontario for two years. These experiences taught her how to code information stored in medical databases for her research, a skillset that she now uses to sort through the enormous database of the Medical Office for the 21st Century (MOXXI) developed by Dr. Tamblyn. 

“Most of my current research involves coding in SAS [Statistical Analysis System] or R, and I really love what I do,” says Jenna. “When you have access to so much raw data, coding is really useful because you can sift through the data and analyze it in creative ways.” 

What she thought would be a very small part of her doctoral work became the bulk of it, ultimately. “The idea for my thesis came through my research supervisor, Dr. Tamblyn, who was doing a multicentre study on the use of antidepressants,” she explains. “There is very little documentation on the different reasons why antidepressants are used, so we thought it would be helpful to learn more about why doctors prescribe so many antidepressants and whether their decisions are backed by science.” This is how she carved out a role for herself at the McGill Clinical and Health Informatics Research Group.

In May 2016, Jenna received impressive media coverage after her work was published. “I found out that antidepressants are prescribed for a wide range of indications and that there is often no real proof backing up their use in many of these cases.” She arrived at this conclusion by compiling all of the indications for antidepressant prescriptions from the decade of information in the MOXXI database. 

Jenna loves working at Dr. Tamblyn’s laboratory because she has the freedom to work at her own pace, yet she can ask questions and get other people’s points of view on her work. “My work environment is amazing!” she says. “There are doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows in the lab, and we share our ideas and our challenges. Dr. Tamblyn gives us great advice and direction while giving us the freedom to work independently.”

Jenna will finish her doctorate this year, but she doesn’t intend to stop there. As she explains, “When I published my first research findings, I wasn't expecting such a reaction from the media. Doctors, patients, researchers and even pharmaceutical companies contacted us to find out more. This experience has really opened my eyes to the extent of this problem, and now I want to continue my research in this area.”

What’s the main benefit of working in health outcomes research? For Jenna, it’s the ability to work anywhere a computer can go.

 

Selected media links on Jenna Wong’s research:

 

—August 2017