At the height of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, geriatric medicine expert Dr. Roger Wong was called to give his expert opinion to a national task force on COVID-19 and long-term care (LTC) convened by Canada’s chief science advisor, as well as speak as an expert witness in the Senate of Canada.

Standing before the task force felt like a poignant moment to Dr. Wong, a medical doctor and UBC’s Vice Dean of Education in the Faculty of Medicine. “When I think back to the earliest stages of my career, I never imagined I would contribute at the national level, sharing my learnings from an entire professional career – learnings which I felt were unfolding all at once during that intense, short period of time [of the pandemic’s first wave].”

Indeed, the focus on seniors’ care during the pandemic was critical. Canada’s long-term care homes were hit especially hard by the pandemic, with outbreaks and deaths devastating hundreds of facilities across the country. Residents of long-term care homes were disproportionately at risk of being infected by the SARS-CoV-2 virus and of developing serious outcomes from COVID-19. Specific populations of seniors, such as those of lower socioeconomic status, were even more profoundly impacted by the illness and pandemic.

Dr. Wong’s contribution was critical in shaping the report of the task force, which identified both short-term solutions and long-term recommendations towards improving conditions and enhancing the care and wellbeing of older Canadians in LTC settings. The importance of exchanging research and on-the-ground knowledge to directly address a very profound challenge facing the country had never been clearer to Dr. Wong.

The knowledge and experience that brought Dr. Wong to that pivotal moment in front of the task force were developed over a long career of working to advance the field of dementia and elder-care research. Through his efforts, Dr. Wong has profoundly affected the lives of countless older Canadians as well as their families, care partners and communities. 

We spoke with Dr. Wong, who was recently appointed as a member of the Order of Canada, to learn how knowledge exchange has shaped his research and innovation efforts in ways that have impacted policies, practices and real-world outcomes for older adults in Canada and beyond. 

"At the end of the day, the goal of knowledge exchange is about transforming and improving people’s lives by appealing to the head and the heart."

-Dr. Roger Wong

You were recently appointed to the Order of Canada last fall. Congratulations! Could you tell us a bit about your field and the achievements that contributed to you receiving the appointment?

Geriatrics is a specialty field focused on providing the best possible care for older adults and their loved ones — their families and their care partners. I firmly believe that good geriatrics care is good healthcare.

I’ve done a lot of work in acute care or hospital medicine. I am very proud that I was one of the pioneers who developed the Acute Care for Elders unit, or ACE, in Canada, which started as a prototype unit in Vancouver and was subsequently replicated around the province, across Canada and around the world. This is an example of how health service delivery research can translate into best practices that improve patient care.

Throughout my career, I’ve also done work in the long-term care sector — especially when it comes to providing culturally sensitive care for older adults in care homes. For instance, using evidence-informed principles of sound geriatrics care, I helped design a care home to deliver culturally appropriate care to Chinese seniors who speak very little or no English. All the home’s staff speak fluent English and Cantonese or Mandarin. In addition to language considerations, the care home provides a comforting and familiar environment to these residents. For example, the home caters to the dietary needs of the residents, with chefs preparing culturally appropriate Chinese meals, such as hot soups that provide a sense of comfort and connection to home.

Has exchanging and sharing knowledge always been important in your work?

Even in the earliest stages of my career, beginning as a medical student, I tried to combine research, scholarship and innovation to make a difference for society.

Beyond my research, in my career I’ve also become an educator, with additional training in business development and executive management. Crossing these disciplines, and transcending their traditional disciplinary boundaries, has been extremely important in achieving my goals of improving geriatric medicine and care.

When researchers think about disseminating knowledge, we have to think beyond publishing in high-impact, peer-reviewed journals. It is equally important to identify effective mechanisms of transferring this knowledge so that we can make a positive impact on others. As scientists, we are trained to appeal to the head, but if we want to change people’s behaviour and attitudes, we must think about how we can also touch the heart. Impacting society requires creativity to think above and beyond how we traditionally measure success in research and academia. 

Dr Roger Wong

You mentioned your involvement in embedding cultural sensitivity in your approach to knowledge sharing. How has this been significant in your work, and what role has it played when facing challenges to knowledge exchange throughout your career?

Culturally sensitive messaging is extremely important in knowledge exchange. Each person in society has unique needs and ways of communicating. The same research finding, the same message, must be communicated using different approaches based on the unique needs of each community.

Throughout my career, I’ve been deeply involved in transferring knowledge and educating others about dementia care, such as Alzheimer’s disease, which is intrinsically difficult because of the complexity and stigma that is associated with the condition. For many patients and their families, the translation of the latest research finding into simple-to-understand practice is really important. And in some cultures, there remains a lot of stigma and fear around dementia. Those beliefs can be tough to change. When it comes to knowledge exchange and support for these communities, we must respect their cultural backgrounds and use approaches that are driven by compassion and humility.

How would you describe your approach to communicating your research in the context of knowledge exchange?

My approach consists of three steps. One: determining the key message that is evidence-based or -informed; two: discovering how to communicate and interact with the audience effectively and respectfully; and three: recognizing and embracing the complexity that comes with knowledge transfer.

Using multiple channels to communicate is a helpful principle for effective knowledge exchange. Common examples include social media platforms, alongside traditional media. About three years ago, I gave a TEDx Talk on supporting seniors to age in place at home and avoid prematurely moving into long-term care. This is a hot topic for many older adults and their families, with a substantial body of scientific evidence, and I decided to use a public platform for broad-based knowledge exchange. I was humbled and honoured when my TEDx Talk was elevated onto the main TED website, and it’s now been viewed by audiences around the world and translated into five languages.

What I’m trying to say is that I customize my approach of knowledge exchange by reaching out to the society at large. As researchers, it is upon us to share evidence-based information and knowledge in an easy-to-digest and a straightforward manner. If we don't do this, we haven't fulfilled our calling of transferring and exchanging knowledge to its fullest extent.

How would you integrate your communications approach around knowledge exchange into a complex field such as geriatrics?

Our world is complex. The way we conduct our studies, the way we analyze data, and the discussions that take place to interpret the data are highly academic. Knowledge exchange is not only about simplifying the message, but it is also about communicating the message in compassionate, culturally sensitive and respectful ways. At the end of the day, the goal of knowledge exchange is about transforming and improving people’s lives by appealing to the head and the heart.