Picture of Alex Wong

Alex Wong: Specialty in Digital Health Approach for Medical Rehabilitation Leads Back to CROR

Written by:

Susan Chandler


Being a two-career family has always been a balancing act for Alex Wong, PhD, Research Scientist at the Center for Rehabilitation Outcomes Research (CROR), and his wife, Mandy Fong, PhD, a neuropsychologist and Assistant Professor at Washington University.

When Wong was finishing a doctorate in Community Health at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Fong was completing hers at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. For a brief two-year period, they lived together in the Windy City after Wong was accepted for a post-doctoral fellowship in health services and outcomes research at CROR and Northwestern University. After the fellowship ended, Wong wanted to continue his work with CROR Director Allen Heinemann, PhD, but he knew that he needed to build an extensive research portfolio that would fund his work. He accepted an Assistant Professorship in Occupational Therapy, Neurology and Psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis. Wong moved 300 miles southwest while Fong stayed in Chicago to finish an internship at the University of Chicago.

Finally, a year later, Fong received a post-doctoral fellowship at Washington University and the two were reunited. “I had a good life before but eventually, the magic happened. Then I had a very happy life,” says Wong, 42. Over the last six years, Wong applied for and received a dozen grants, many of them focused on incorporating digital technology into rehabilitation practices and outcomes measurement. His family evolved, too. The couple added Micah, a baby boy, to their family.

I built the MCA so that I can assess their cognitive function in an actual environment where there may be lots of distractions

Alex Wong, PhD, DPhil, OT, CRC


Much of Wong’s work involves using smartphones or wearable sensors like smartwatches that can collect data while a person is away from a structured environment like a hospital or therapy session.  For instance, he created the Mobile Cognitive Assessment (MCA), a smartphone app that acts like a video game. “Some people with memory problems come in to take a test in a quiet environment and are told they did fine but there may be subtle cognitive changes that aren’t being detected,” Wong says. “I built the MCA so that I can assess their cognitive function in an actual environment where there may be lots of distractions.”

Wong is also interested in capturing real-time data rather than asking people what they remember or felt in the past. This approach, known as Ecological Momentary Assessment (EMA), was developed by research psychologists and involves filling out a series of surveys over time. That used to be done on paper but now a smartphone app can ping a patient and then ask them about their current moods and behaviors. “I could ask you to rate how sad you are currently,” Wong says. “Let’s say you’ve reported feeling depressed a few times. I might be able to give you a just-in-time intervention in the form of a text that suggests you try a mindfulness program or take some other action. I really like this technique.”

Even though Wong was happy in St. Louis, he wanted to return to CROR and the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, the top-ranked rehabilitation hospital in the country. He had kept in touch by having coffee and sharing his research portfolio with Heinemann at academic conferences over the years. Finally, Heinemann told him the time was right to apply with funding of Wong’s career development award from the National Institute on Child Health and Human Development.

We’ve done this before, I know it will work out.

Alex Wong, PhD, DPhil, OT, CRC


In February 2021, Wong started his new job as a CROR Research Scientist and brought five active grants with him. He also was appointed a Research Associate Professor in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. His latest work focuses on technology-based approaches to the assessment and treatment of neurological disorders like stroke and spinal cord injuries. As part of one CROR project, Wong is also working on a smartphone-based intervention that will track the amount of exercise engaged in by people with spinal cord injuries and apply motivational techniques with the goal of increasing their adherence to exercise guidelines.

Wong has been enjoying his return to work with CROR. Now the goal is for his wife to find a new job in the Chicago area, too. But Wong and Fong are used to navigating such changes. “We’ve done this before,” Wong says. “I know it will work out.”

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