Local research scientist appointed to Order of Canada

John Hirdes recognized for contribution to developing standardized health care assessments

CENTRE WELLINGTON – Salem resident John Hirdes is one of 78 appointees to the Order of Canada.

On Dec. 28 Governor General Mary Simon announced the order’s new members, who are recognized for contributions that enrich and improve the lives of others.

Hirdes, a University of Waterloo public health sciences professor and a senior research scientist for international research group interRAI, has been recognized for his contributions to developing standardized assessments in health care settings.

“It’s very gratifying to have that recognition of my career contributions,” Hirdes told the Advertiser by phone.

Born to Dutch parents in South West Africa, now Namibia, the family fled to the Netherlands, and later Canada in 1966, after Hirdes’ father spoke out vehemently against apartheid and feared arrest.

“As a first-generation Canadian it’s also wonderful to receive the recognition that I’ve made contributions to the country that adopted me and my family,” Hirdes said.

Hirdes started his career focused on aging, and most of his more recent research has focused on getting standardized, scientific health assessments implemented in Canada.

He spoke proudly of his international work, co-leading studies in Africa and India to improve primary care for older adults and mental health assessments, respectively.

Within Ontario, those receiving home care, in a long-term or complex continuing care setting, or who are psychiatric in-patients have likely been assessed by a system Hirdes helped develop.

“It’s very common when we go to a clinician’s office that we will sit in the lobby, and we’ll fill out a form, and we keep filling out the same form over and over again,” he said, adding, “sometimes the form’s confusing and not particularly helpful.”

The interRAI systems, Hirdes said, replace those “homegrown” assessments with a scientific method designed to ask the right questions, the right way.

“You want to be confident that the results aren’t just based on seeing the ‘one right clinician’ – you want to be sure that everybody comes up with the same answer consistently,” he explained.

Data from assessments is also funnelled into the Canadian Institute for Health Information, where quality-of-care data from nursing homes across the Canada, such as the rate of physical restraints or antipsychotic medication use, can be viewed by anyone with an internet connection.

“We can use evidence to flag problems and to drive quality improvement initiatives that make a tangible change in quality of care,” Hirdes explained, adding, “quality doesn’t take care of itself.”

“Global aging is one of the grand challenges of the next century … and mental health concerns are the leading cause of disability worldwide,” he said.

The health of older people and those with mental health struggles is affected by similar challenges, Hirdes said, noting physical, social, emotional, environmental, systemic and housing challenges.

“What’s interesting about these two populations us the complexity of the challenges that are facing them and the difficulty that the health system has in responding to their needs,” he said.

Now 62, Hirdes is working to better the information gathered on older people within primary health care settings and retirement homes, and those accessing community mental health services.

He endeavours as well to launch community mental health studies in South and Central America.

However far the reaches of his research, Hirdes has called Centre Wellington home for the past 40 years, and he hopes his recognition represents the community with honour.