Seeing through snake oil

Cover story, McMaster Times, Spring 2015 issue.

Winner of an Accolades Award for Staff Writing from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), District II, December 2015.

Forget Dr. Oz. The McMaster Optimal Aging Portal is the real deal – if you’re looking for reliable, evidence-based health information for an aging population.

McMaster Times Spring 2015

McMaster Times Spring 2015

By Allyson Rowley

It all started with dinner on Friday nights. “When we both lived in Ottawa in the 1980s, my mother and I would get together over a meal at the end of every week,” recalls Suzanne Labarge ’67.

A renowned author and historian, Margaret Wade Labarge, CM was also a passionate advocate for the elderly, serving as chair of the Board of Governors of St. Vincent’s Hospital and chair of the Ottawa Council on Aging.

“It became part of my life for almost 10 years, understanding the issues around aging,” says Labarge of their weekly get-togethers. Her mother had taken over many of her father’s volunteer commitments when he had passed away. “It runs in the family,” says Labarge, whose father, Raymond Labarge ’36, was a member of McMaster’s Board of Governors.

Appointed McMaster’s chancellor in 2013, Suzanne Labarge served in executive positions with the federal government and the Royal Bank until her retirement in 2004. “My parents believed that you are part of the community and you give back. And if you’ve been lucky, you give back more.”

And that she has done, in spades. In 2007, Labarge donated $2 million to establish a research chair in optimal aging, named in tribute to her parents. Then in 2012, she gave a further $10-million to her alma mater to launch the Labarge Optimal Aging Initiative. A key part of that multi-pronged initiative is the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal – a free website service for citizens, clinicians, public health professionals and policymakers alike. Launched in October 2014, its URL is

Anthony Levinson ’97, ’06 leads the website’s design, development and administration. “There are many online resources that deal with health and aging, but what sets the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal apart is our emphasis on providing the best evidence – and on telling you why it’s the best.”

The Portal team rates web resources, gathers evidence summaries and curates blog posts, helping you sort through the overwhelming amount of information available online.

“We hope we can become the sensible go-to place. Don’t just type your question into Google. Go to the Portal,” says Levinson, director of the Division of e-Learning Innovation in the Faculty of Health Sciences and the John R. Evans Chair in Health Sciences Educational Research and Instructional Development.

Three databases form the scientific backbone to the new website. “It was serendipity,” says Levinson. “Here at McMaster, we have three world-renowned databases of health evidence, each meant for different audiences – public health professionals, clinicians and policymakers.” The Portal taps into that deep pool of knowledge and makes it accessible and understandable to the general public.

Along with Levinson, the leadership team for the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal includes Maureen Dobbins ’89, Brian Haynes ’73, ’76, John Lavis, and Parminder Raina.

After the successful launch this fall, the next phase will focus on promoting the Portal to partner organizations, as well as undertaking further evaluation. “We want it to be useful and impactful,” says Levinson, who encourages members of the community to participate in the evaluation process.

Tina Falbo ’80 was one of the citizens who took part in the six-month testing process that led up to the October launch. She reviewed the blogs: Were they easy to understand and clearly communicated? Were the topics useful and was there enough supporting evidence?  “I was quite impressed. The information is very high-quality.”

Falbo notes the Portal is relevant not only for seniors, but also for caregivers and anyone interested in healthy aging. “They have gathered the best of the best,” says Falbo, a retired teacher who helps care for her elderly parents.

She’s also one of the volunteers in a Healthy Aging course offered by the Faculty of Social Sciences. “We challenge the students’ assumptions and extend their thinking about older people,” says Falbo, who often recommends students check out the Portal for themselves.

Family physician Doug Oliver ’98, ’01, ‘03 is also quick to debunk a few myths. The usual thinking is that the elderly aren’t computer literate – so how can a website help them? Not so fast. “My older patients are happy to use technology and are more computer literate than we give them credit for.”

The Portal empowers patients to take care of their own health, says Oliver. “From a family physician’s point of view, the more knowledge the patient has, the better his or her health will be.”

Thanks to Suzanne Labarge’s extraordinary generosity, the website’s initial seven years have been kick-started. She envisions the Portal as a unique resource for McMaster to continue building its reputation as an optimal aging powerhouse – and to continue generating research collaborations along with sustainable funding, free of commercial sponsorship. There’s also a “donate” button on each page for anyone who’d like to contribute.

“It’s amazing what the team has done in two years. We’ve come so far in so short a time,” says Labarge, who notes McMaster’s stellar reputation in the health sciences, as well as its thriving culture of interdisciplinary collaboration. “That’s the advantage at McMaster – we have top-notch, world-class people here. We’re going to make it work.”

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