Kerry Hwang: putting the human into medical research

Kerry Hwang has always been passionate about research. Spurred on by watching his grandfather languish with Alzheimer’s Disease, his first passion was to find a treatment or cure for the disease. After working in a laboratory on cellular models, he realised he was more interested in working with people.

At NARI, Kerry is working on two main projects that involve researching and designing solutions for older people from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse backgrounds.

“In a way, I have gone back to my past to find answers that will ensure the needs of older people from CALD backgrounds are met within our health system,” Kerry said.

His family background is Chinese and Vietnamese, and both his parents left their home countries in search for a better life.

“My research is important to me because of my background: I know that my efforts will have a direct benefit on migrant communities that now call Australia home, and help them age gracefully and well.”

“Australia has a rich migrant history, and this is becoming increasingly reflected in the proportion of older people from CALD backgrounds. In only a few years from now, approximately 33% of older Australians will be from a CALD background,” Kerry said.

The projects Kerry is working on are using technology to drive solutions the build on the rich diversity of cultures.

The first is a Commonwealth Government funded project which is looking at whether the use of e-interpreting (using an interpreter over video technology) can be used to screen older CALD Australians for cognitive impairment or depression.

“The first project of its kind in Australia is yielding some promising results, although it is still early days,” Kerry said.

The second, run through Melbourne Ageing Research Collaboration, is called SCOUTT which is investigating the potential of mobile translation apps, such as those found on iphones or smart phones, to help overcome language barriers in a healthcare setting when the healthcare worker and older person do not speak the same language.

“One of the more surprising findings from the SCOUTT study is that when we asked older Greek and Chinese whether would use something apps to communicate with healthcare staff, they were enthusiastic about it,” Kerry said.

“It wasn't the answer we were expecting because of the negative stigma that older people are technophobic, but this finding showed that older people aren’t technophobic by nature, but are unsure of how to use it and would like someone to teach them.”

For Kerry, the diversity of the projects he is involved in and the complexity coupled with the numerous research gaps in ageing makes it an important and very exciting area of research to be in.

“Technology holds the key to many answers – both in the needs of older people as well as how we resource and support an ageing workforce,” he says.

He is particularly interested in investigating the effects of video games on ageing, asking the question whether 60 and 70 year olds still be playing video games 50 years down the track? And what impact will sedentary behaviour from video games have on the biological processes of ageing and disease manifestation?