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UT Alumna Empowering Patients

On April 18th, as we celebrate European Patients’ Rights Day, we reflect on the impact of healthcare technology on patient well-being made possible by the work of people like Merlijn Smits, a UT alumna with dual masters in Industrial Design and Philosophy of Science, Technology, and Society; and expert in Healthcare technologies that greatly affect experiences, values, and thereby wellbeing of patients. 

In her PhD research at the Radboud University Medical Center Merlijn led multiple studies on the mediating effects of state-of-the-art technologies on patient wellbeing, including continuous monitoring with wearable devices, Virtual Reality treatments for chronic pain, and an integrated personalized healing system for hospital patient rooms.

Merlijn Smits IDE'17/PST'18

Healthcare technologies greatly affect the experiences, values, and thereby well-being of patients. With her background in industrial design engineering and philosophy of technology at the University of Twente, Enschede, Merlijn Smits is fascinated by the beneficial effects technologies can have on patients' well-being; and aims to guide designers into technology assessment and responsible design. 

Last month, Merlijn Smits started as an Associate Lecturer in Human Centered Design at the Saxion Industrial Design Research Group.

You can read her publication about Digital Well-being through this link.

Merlijn shares a story for the UT alumni community.

It was September 2018 when I graduated, armed with two UT masters in Industrial Design and Philosophy of Science, Technology, and Society. I was convinced of the value of combining these two masters but was challenged by how this combination would work out in practice.

The challenge increased when I signed my first contract at the Radboud University Medical Center. At the surgery ward. This was so much a surprise to me, as it was to all my relatives as even the mere mention of blood was enough to make me faint. I was going to bring design and philosophy into a world with hyperspecialized medical professionals working from the dominant research paradigm of ‘evidence-based healthcare’. Challenge accepted.

I worked on the design and implementation of various healthcare technologies. Soon, my work turned into a PhD project. At first, it felt lonely. I was the only person on the ward without a degree in medicine. As no one could set an example for me, I turned to my previous UT supervisors, and they were happy to supervise and support my PhD process. A surgeon, a designer, and a philosopher formed my supervising team, making me a multidisciplinary researcher.

Being a multidisciplinary researcher became the biggest challenge of all. I regularly noticed that terms in my papers added by one of my supervisors were crossed by the other. Accepted methodologies diverged, publishing was hard to even impossible, and even terminology could differ per discipline. For instance, the word 'artefact' meant 'all man-made items' to philosophers, but 'unforeseen issues' to healthcare professionals.

Despite the challenges, it turned out very well. Being the only one to combine three specific disciplines, I was quickly seen as an expert in the responsible human-centered design of healthcare technology. One day, another PhD candidate from the surgery ward asked me for advice. This candidate developed a novel solution for treating patients and aimed to understand how patients experienced this solution. He asked me what kind of questionnaire to use. I looked at my colleague with a frown and suggested, "Why don't you just ask them?" My colleague was surprised and asked, "Is that publishable?"

What I learned from that, was to be confident. The hospital was an overwhelming environment with many smart highly educated medical professionals. At first, I wondered what the hell I was doing there. But I seemed valuable. Simple facts of which I thought were evident for everyone – almost mundane– appeared to be new knowledge for people educated in medicine. So I learned not to underestimate myself and openly share my point of view.

Likewise, I also learned a lot from being in the middle of the surgeons (to-be). How incredibly structured, stress-resilient, and adequate they are. Furthermore, who would have guessed that I would know the meaning of 'HIPEC'? (Google it, but do not look at the images!). And I felt safe; if I mentioned any ailment, I received ten diagnoses.

Looking back, almost six years later, I realize I was lucky to have conquered my fear of blood and accepted all the challenges. I learned a lot from all the medical doctors, felt valued and supported by my UT supervisors, got a lot of freedom to experiment, and learned to be autonomous and confident. But most of all, I found meaning in my work. I am still working in healthcare (although not in the hospital anymore), and I believe that I will continue to work in this challenging yet rewarding environment for many years to come.

Merlijn Smits

Note: I wrote a part of this text while I was working as a PhD student and added my personal experiences to my PhD thesis. To read more about my experiences as a multidisciplinary PhD student, you can find my thesis here. And while reading, you might even take a look at the scientific papers. :)