Psychology Month Profile: Dr. Justin Presseau

Justin Presseau
Psychology Month has been extended two days, so we can bring you the work of Dr. Justin Presseau, who is co-Chairing a working group of behavioural scientists advising Ontario healthcare executives and government representatives on best practices during the COVID-19 pandemic.

About Justin Presseau

Justin Presseau

Dr. Justin Presseau is going to welcome a new baby in about a month. His wife Leigh is eight months pregnant, which means this new child will be born in the middle of a global pandemic.

This adds one more job to Dr. Presseau’s portfolio, which also includes Scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, Associate Professor in the School of Epidemiology and Public Health and in the School of Psychology at the University of Ottawa, and the Chair of the Health Psychology and Behavioural Medicine Section of the CPA.

As with many researchers, much of Dr. Presseau’s work had to pivot because of the pandemic. He leads a team co-developing new ways to support new Canadians with diabetes to be comfortable taking an eye test. Retinopathy is a manageable issue for people with diabetes when identified through regular screening but attendance rates could be improved, and so Dr. Presseau and his team are building relationships with different communities and community health centres virtually.

Another thing that’s difficult to do from a distance is blood donation. Dr. Presseau and his team are working with Canadian Blood Services and local communities to develop approaches to support men who have sex with men who may want to donate blood plasma, as screening and deferral policies continue to change to allow more MSM to donate if they want. Part of that work involves addressing the historic inequities that led to the exclusion of these men in the first place. But then – there was a pandemic, and his team like so many others have pivoted to continuing to develop key community relationships and campaigns virtually.

In addition, Dr. Presseau is tackling a lot of COVID-related projects, like for example a national survey of to understand what factors are associated with touching eyes, nose and mouth. The research is changing as we continue to develop an understanding of how COVID-19 is transmitted.

Maybe the most important of these COVID-related projects is the  , a group of behavioural science experts and public health leaders who summarize behavioural science evidence in the context of COVID-19 and identify actionable guidance for Ontario’s pandemic response. Dr. Presseau is the co-Chair of this working group, which also involves CPA President Dr. Kim Corace.

“We sit within the larger Ontario Science Advisory Table. We’ve brought together expertise in behavioural science and particularly psychologists across Ontario, based both in academia and within government, to work alongside public health experts and ministry representatives.”

Dr. Presseau says that because the working group contains representatives from all these different areas and the team can communicate directly in this setting with decision makers and policy creators, it is the most direct form of knowledge transfer and knowledge mobilization of behavioural science in which he has been involved in his career.

“From an impact perspective, we get to translate our science to people who can make use of it right away, and they can also provide feedback to us – what are they looking for? What’s helpful to them? Of all the things I’ve done in my career this feels among the most impactful. One of the hats I also wear in the hospital where I’m based is Scientific Lead for Knowledge Translation [in the Ottawa Methods Centre], so I think about knowledge translation a lot. The ability to connect directly with those in the field that are making a difference is excellent. It’s also such a validating experience for me, as a behavioural scientist and a psychologist, to see that there’s recognition of our science and a need for an understanding of how we can draw from the behavioural sciences to support Ontarians and Canadians.”

The Behavioural Science Working Group is currently focused on vaccine confidence and uptake among health care professionals. Over 80% of Ontario health care workers say overwhelmingly that they intend to receive a COVID-19 vaccine when it is available to them. The working group is looking to communicate behavioural science approaches to support healthcare organisations across the province to optimise their vaccine promotion programs – for instance, by clarifying that despite having been created at record speed, these vaccines have been shown to be safe and effective and it’s important that those in the healthcare field get one.

Part of this is modeling good behaviour for the rest of the population. And within the healthcare field, modeling good behaviour is one way the working group is hoping to reach those who may be undecided. It’s one thing to have politicians and celebrities get vaccinated publicly, it’s another far more effective thing for your peer group, and hospital CEOs, and team leaders, to do so in front of your team.

Much of this work involves drawing on the literature from around the world to inform hospital policy or public policy. But some of it happens directly, and goes in two directions. For example,

“Our co-chair Dr. Laura Desveaux and her team did surveys with healthcare workers that not only ask if they intend to get the COVID vaccine, but also ask questions that are drawing from behavioural science and psychological principles around the specific constructs or factors might be associated with greater or lesser intention. So they were able to identify key predictors in healthcare workers in January of 2021, the most current data we have. So it’s kind of exciting to be able to quickly draw from on-the-ground data, iterate principles, and push that out to the field to support those who are doing this.”

We have asked most of our Psychology Month participants if they see a ‘silver lining’ in the pandemic. Something that is good, but that would not otherwise have happened absent the pandemic. Dr. Presseau says one silver lining is that it has highlighted just how important and relevant health psychology and behavioural medicine are to understanding and supporting health behaviour change and health and well-being during pandemics.

“After all, behaviour underpins most if not all the public health measures and vaccination activities that are key to seeing the other side of this pandemic.”

When Leigh and Justin’s baby is born, the pandemic will still be ongoing. But that baby will be born into a world that has a much greater understanding of pandemic science, of the behavioural science that accompanies it, and with more and more diverse teams of interdisciplinary experts working together to solve problems – locally, provincially, nationally, and globally.

One day, this baby will grow into a person who can take pride that Dad had a lot to do with that.