Q & A: Advanced Standing Master of Social Work student Titus Chan is applying his clinical experience to his work in public policyCategories: Q & A, Students
When Titus Chan moved from Alberta to Toronto to pursue his Master of Social Work at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, he also took on a new role as a researcher for the National Institute on Ageing. The job has been a great opportunity for Chan to apply his clinical social work experience to public health policy — and his work is already making a difference. This winter, the Health Standards Organization published a report that Chan co-authored on long-term care, which is informing the development of new national long-term care standards in Canada.
An Advanced Standing social work student, Chan is completing the collaborative specialization in public health policy. He also recently received the Sir James Lougheed Award of Distinction from the Government of Alberta, which recognizes academic excellence and provides Alberta students in graduate programs with funding to study outside of the province.
We spoke to Chan about his job, the new report, and what inspired him to pursue a collaborative specialization in public health policy.
Tell us about your job at the National Institute on Ageing.
As a Junior Research Fellow, I get to do a lot of research as part of a diverse multidisciplinary team, which includes people from a wide variety of backgrounds, from gerontology to public health, to law. It’s really interesting work. The Institute is a think tank that examines current and dynamic public policy matters affecting older adults in Canada. A lot of my work at the Institute involves primary research, quantitative and qualitative data analysis, jurisdictional scans, and contributing to policy white papers.
What were you doing before becoming a student in the Advanced Standing Master of Social Work program at FIFSW?
I graduated with my Bachelor of Social Work during the pandemic and then worked in community and primary care with seniors. Coming from a direct practice background to a position where I’m able to work on public policy issues has been very interesting.
What inspired you to pursue a Master of Social Work at FIFSW with a collaborative specialization in public health policy at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health (DLSPH)?
I came to U of T with a very specific focus and that was to learn macro policy skills. I have a social work diploma in addition to my BSW and have practiced with seniors and caregivers across a wide range of settings, so I feel I have a strong foundation in clinical skills. But during my time as a frontline social worker, I felt I was coming across the same issues over and over again. In my previous jobs, we had a lot of seniors coming in with commingled health and social challenges. The health challenges were difficult to manage because of the social challenges, and vice versa. For example, it’s really hard to manage diabetes if you can’t even afford your weekly groceries. And it’s frustrating when you realize that this is not just a one-time client. I saw examples of these kinds of things among hundreds of clients. There are so many people with the exact same very preventable issues caused by structural factors, such as income and food insecurity — things that would be preventable if we had better support systems. I wanted to go into the MSW program to build my skills so that I could bridge policy and practice. The specialization has been really helpful so far for just that, especially around understanding the politics and role of evidence in policymaking, as well as how to advocate for seniors at that macro level.
What was the focus of the recent Health Standards Organization (HSO) report that you helped develop and what role did you play in the research that informed the report?
The report I worked on is part three of a series of reports on community engagement efforts led by the Health Standards Organization to determine what changes Canadians want to see in the long-term care sector. The report that I worked on focused on the results of resident interviews and is helping inform the development of new service standards for long-term care to ensure it is high-quality, safe and resident-centered.
A lot of my work was to comb through the interviews with residents and analyze the data using qualitative methods. It was important for me to understand the residents’ narratives and experiences, and then be able to capture that and package them in a way that’s easy to read and accessible.
Could you briefly highlight some of the key findings of the report?
There were four main areas that the residents and townhall participants identified as key to transforming long-term care across Canada. These included looking at ways to improve care experiences by addressing things like autonomy and quality of life, because long-term care sites are not just facilities, they’re homes. The second key area involved enhancing communication, for example, how we promote better interpersonal communication, especially for people who are hard of hearing or require accessible signage, and how to ensure strong communication between the long-term care home and the families that visit. Staffing was another big one; this included supporting the workforce and building retention, through job security, better training, and education and support for frontline staff. The last key area involved enabling good governance and leadership, which could include creating opportunities for residents and families to provide feedback through family councils or other official channels.
What lessons can social workers in practice take away from this report?
The report really captures a lot of the meaningful changes that people want to see happen in long term care. Whether you’re a social worker working in the health sector, or you are a social worker who’s just interested in learning more about seniors and older adults, the report provides a really detailed glimpse of residents’ day-to-day experiences. It also highlights opportunities for change and improving services and care. And it reaffirms a lot of the barriers and inequalities that social workers in the sector have been seeing, and advocating on, for years, which are now in the spotlight because of the pandemic.
Why is a social work perspective important for policy work?
Social work theories and perspectives inherently give frontline clinicians a really good understanding of policy. In social work we are trained from a systems perspective. We’re trained to see how our clients are affected by their environments. When there’s a client in front of us, we don’t just see the person, we see the effects of things like historical injustice, systemic barriers that prevent them from accessing health and social care, or disempowerment, due to the institutions that they interact with. We see these links to greater systems and are able to pull them together to see how they tangibly affect our clients. This really makes us ideal practitioners to go beyond clinical work and contribute to public policy.
What do you hope to do after graduation?
I really hope to be able to continue working with older adults and caregivers, because I’ve really enjoyed working in this area. More specifically, I hope to be able to transition into a career in public policy. Here in Canada, we’re definitely in the midst of some interesting legislative and public policy developments, particularly around health care reform, pensions and other things that affect older adults. I really hope to be able to be a part of these types of large-scale initiatives and changes because structural social work is something that I’m really passionate about. I want to be able to ensure that the social work perspective informs the discussions at policymaking tables, to advocate for communities and to promote a more client-centered approach in our public policies.
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