Last month’s International Congress on Health Promoting Universities and Colleges, attended by delegates from 38 countries and held in Kelowna, B.C., led to the signing of a new international guiding document. The Okanagan Charter commits postsecondary institutions to lead by example in health promotion and to embed health and sustainability into their programs, operations and campus culture.
The congress drew attention to the key role of postsecondary institutions in creating healthier communities. Universities and colleges have a unique capacity and responsibility to promote health and well-being, far beyond our research mandate and the training of practitioners in the health disciplines, and we must rise to the challenge. The complex global health challenges we face today demand highly innovative thinking and collaboration which require engagement of all sectors of society.
The Okanagan Charter builds on the foundational work of the United Nations, World Health Organization and the international Healthy Cities, Workplaces and Schools movements as well as the concepts put forward in Ottawa (1986) and Edmonton (2005) in two earlier charters for Health Promoting Universities and Colleges.
Healthier cities and communities
An example of an innovative partnership that brings diverse perspectives to bear on creating healthy communities is the Healthy City Partnership, signed last fall between the City of Kelowna, B.C.’s Interior Health Authority and the University of British Columbia. The strength of this project lies in blending of disciplines, responsibilities and perspectives, from city planning and engineering to health management and economics.
We anticipate the partnership will enable us to use our community as a living laboratory and offer valuable lessons for other rapidly developing communities across Canada. To bring about the transformation we know is required to ensure healthy, livable communities globally will require deeper understanding of complex issues and new approaches to well-being and health care delivery.
Future policy makers, community leaders and health professionals will need to understand health and well-being, beyond disciplinary knowledge and skills, including understanding of complex social systems, dialogue skills, relationship management and knowledge of how to use consensus-building processes in complex settings. This signals a need to invest in the interdisciplinary and experiential learning and soft skills development, not only in our health programs, but for all our students.
Universities have a special responsibility to advance health knowledge and practices through our research activities. At UBC’s Okanagan campus in Kelowna we have taken on the challenge of health care delivery in rural and remote communities. For example, nursing researchers are developing innovative approaches to deliver care to isolated communities, focusing on cardiac and palliative patients. Engineers are developing technologies that enhance health care providers’ ability to monitor patient health across great distances.
Promoting health in Aboriginal communities is also a focus at UBC Okanagan, where researchers are working with local First Nations communities and the Interior Health Authority to develop practices to ensure culturally safe and positive experiences for everyone when accessing the health care system.
Calls to action
Perhaps one of the most important outcomes of the international congress was a call for postsecondary institutions to ensure that all our graduates understand the foundations of health and well-being and are prepared, whatever their life paths, to make the best choices for themselves, their families and communities.
We can do this by becoming exemplars of health-promoting communities: to embed health in our campus policies and services; to create environments that support health and personal development; and to become communities with a culture of well‐being.
There can be no more important foundation for our graduates’ success than their understanding of their own health and well-being. We have an opportunity to create this understanding while they are students on our campuses through research and teaching and innovative approaches to mental health, operations and food services. Through these activities we can create, model and test new approaches to health and well-being for society.
Our actions will have impact far beyond our campuses: changing health paradigms and creating new generations of informed and engaged citizens. The Okanagan Charter provides an opportunity to renew our institutional commitment to the future health and well-being of our students, our communities and our nation – let’s act on it.
Arvind Gupta is president and vice-chancellor of the University of British Columbia. Deborah Buszard is deputy vice-chancellor and principal of UBC Okanagan Campus.