A bold new vision

Menzies welcomes its new director, renowned kidney specialist and public health expert, Alan Cass.

It’s 3pm on a Wednesday and Professor Alan Cass stands in the light-filled Director’s office at the Menzies School of Health Research. For now, there’s no queue of staff vying for time, no papers to sign and no meetings to attend.

But in November the gears will shift upwards: Prof Cass will step into the role of fourth director at the Menzies.

He pulls up a chair beside the only item decorating the room, his open briefcase, and reflects that he’s a long way from inner Sydney where his medical career first started in 1989.

He trained as a kidney specialist at Royal Alfred Hospital; it would prove a formative episode of his life.

Aboriginal in-patients from across New South Wales presented with kidney disease in far greater numbers than would be expected based on the size of the state’s Indigenous population. Prof Cass wanted to unravel the ‘why’ behind the link.

“My father was a surgeon and my mother a sociologist, so while I was growing up we’d have discussions around the dinner table about how employment and housing impact on health, for example,” he says.

“I always had the notion that health care providers could address problems in a very real way for people.”

In the late1990s, a pamphlet advertising PhD opportunities at Menzies in Darwin arrived in the mail. It cemented his move into research.

Taking him to 26 urban, rural and remote settings – including in the Kimberley, Top End, Central Australia and Far North Queensland – Prof Cass’ PhD on end-stage renal disease allowed him to assess the relationship between health outcomes, patients’ experiences and the way health systems operate.

As he says: “As researchers we have to be asking the right questions. Unless we talk to people about what works, what doesn’t work and why – we won’t ever be able to fix systems and address problems head on.”

This ‘global’ conceptual approach is a hallmark of Prof Cass’ thinking. Other descriptives include ‘broad’, ‘strategic’ and ‘collaborative’ – he’s astute at forging networks nationally and globally, especially throughout Asia.

That last theme, collaboration, makes a regular appearance when he’s asked to list some of his proudest achievements.

“At the George Institute for Global Health [where he’s spent the last nine years, most recently as director of the renal division], we brought together Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers and health policy makers aiming to improve outcomes for Aboriginal people with heart disease, kidney disease and diabetes.”

Perhaps most notably, Prof Cass spearheaded joint ventures between The George and the Baker IDI in Alice Springs via the establishment of the Kanyini Vascular Collaboration.

The role also honed his research and managerial skills: whilst at the George he oversaw a $5 million budget and the work of around 30 researchers.

Similarly, Prof Cass became expert at securing funding. Since, 2003 he clocked in excess of $30 million in both National Health and Medical Research Council and Australian Research Council grants – a feat that helped him average roughly 20 papers published papers per year.

His present goal, he says, is to develop, implement and evaluate meaningful solutions to improve health outcomes; and Northern Australia is just the place to do so.

“We’re at the top of the country. We’re close to key nations in the region where we can work together on building capacity.

“This is an ideal place to collaborate with other passionate people. I want to strengthen what Menzies is doing already, not just in Aboriginal health, but also in tropical health.”

As Prof Cass packs up his briefcase and readies himself for his next stop – a flight to Menzies’ office in Alice Springs – it’s clear his energy for the job fires brightly.

“There are so many opportunities for growth. The Northern Territory, to me, is where it’s at. People are usually here for a reason and the team at Menzies inspire me. They have a passion for addressing problems, and the issues here are very real and important.”

Professor Alan Cass, it seems, will fit right in.