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Good news on Indigenous kids’ health

Dr Elisabeth Hodson

Dr Elisabeth Hodson

29 October 2009

“We didn’t find any evidence that Aboriginal children were more likely to have kidney abnormalities at an earlier age than non-Aboriginal children.”

So says Dr Elisabeth Hodson from the Children’s Hospital at Westmead in Sydney. Speaking with Dr Andi Horvath, Dr Hodson explains that she is primarily a physician who doubles as a trouble-shooter for the research team looking for health differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous kids.

She also talks about how her current work with childhood kidney disease just seems to have evolved over the past 35 years.

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Transcript of podcast

Voice-over: Welcome to this National Health and Medical Research Council podcast. Every year NHMRC celebrates ten of Australia’s best health and medical research projects. In this interview series we explore the job, the person and the event that led to a career in medical research.

Introduction: I’m talking to Dr Elisabeth Hodson. She’s a senior scientist at the Children’s Hospital at Westmead.

Interviewer: Dr Elisabeth, can you explain to us what it is that your research area investigates?

Dr Hodson: We’re investigating why it is that Aboriginal people develop kidney disease more frequently and at an earlier age than non-Aboriginal people in Australia. One of our theories is that we could examine Aboriginal children and see whether they had any evidence of kidney problems right from a much earlier age that had not been picked up. And so what we’ve done is to recruit a group of Aboriginal children and from the same schools we’ve also recruited a group of non-Aboriginal children and we’ve tested them. And our tests involve taking their blood pressure and measuring their weight and also doing a test of their urine. Particularly what we’re looking for is whether there’s any evidence of blood in the urine and some stuff that we call protein, which should only be in the urine if the kidneys are damaged.

Interviewer: And where’s the research at?

Dr Hodson: The first study, which has been completed, went over six years and during the six years we collected data on a thousand Aboriginal children and a thousand non-Aboriginal children in different areas in NSW, and then we re-tested them after two years and after four years.

Interviewer: Right, so we’re taking checks on where we are with the Indigenous population?

Dr Hodson: That’s right. We didn’t find any evidence that the Aboriginal children were more likely to have kidney abnormalities at an earlier age than non-Aboriginal children.

Interviewer: Sure, okay so this is important information for the nation’s healthcare in terms of what directions we take?

Dr Hodson: That’s right.

Interviewer: What do you do day-to-day?

Dr Hodson: I don’t do science all the time anyway because I suppose I would take – five or ten percent of my time would be looking after the research stuff. The rest of it is involved in everyday patient care, looking after children in the hospital.

Interviewer: Oh, I see.

Dr Hodson: And because I’m not primarily a scientist, I’m primarily a physician, a kidney specialist and that’s what I’m paid to do. In terms of the research project, basically I’m available to the research team for trouble-shooting any problems that they might have. For example, when they’re out in the field and they find a child who has an unexpectedly high blood pressure for example, then they will contact me so that I can contact the local doctor of the child and organise for that child to be seen urgently by a doctor. That’s one of my roles and otherwise my roles would be largely supporting the group when they’re back in the city, helping them to work out where they should go next and helping them to look at how we can manage recruitment, how we can encourage more young people to take part. We’ve now extended the study into a teenage population to see whether we can see any differences there. So I’m not primarily involved in the research every day, I’m very much a person in the background who trouble-shoots when they can’t fix it themselves.

Interviewer: So why do you do this research, what drives you?

Dr Hodson: I’ve always found research very interesting in terms of being able to achieve a little bit more than just my everyday job of taking care of children, because I think we can advance a little bit more knowledge in terms of learning from these data for example. If, for example, we find a difference in the adolescents between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children then we have the background in which to go forward to governments and say, now look this is the difference now, we can start screening these kids, we can then put in place some strategies to prevent further deterioration in renal function and maybe we can prevent them developing kidney failure and going on to dialysis and needing transplants, or at least delaying it to a much older age.

Interviewer: Elisabeth, take us back. What got you inspired in medical research?

Dr Hodson: When I first came to Australia one of the earliest things that happened was the fall of Vietnam, back in ’75, and one of the things that I was involved with was a whole lot of children were evacuated to Australia. And a number of them came to the Children’s Hospital one weekend and I happened to be on call that weekend, and so I looked after quite a lot of them. So then we looked at that group of children and wrote that information up for the Medical Journal of Australia. And after that I started to look after children with kidney disease and as part of that I wanted to learn a little bit more about some of the bone problems that children with kidney disease can get. So I started to do some work on that, and I found that all very interesting and sort of expanded the usual everyday work of seeing patients in clinics, seeing patients in the ward. It just gave an extra dimension to the everyday work that I was doing.

Interviewer: Taking it a bit further and using the opportunities that were presented to you?

Dr Hodson: Yeah, that’s right.

Interviewer: Dr Elisabeth Hodson, thank you so much for speaking to us and good luck with your medicine and your science.

Dr Hodson: Lovely, thank you very much.

Voice-over: This podcast was brought to you by the National Health and Medical Research Council, working to build a healthy Australia. You’ll find more information about this and other Health and Medical Research issues on our website at www.nhmrc.gov.au.

Page reviewed: 5 May, 2011