“I actually chose to study Health Sciences, because this programme covers more than just the medical field"
Will eHealth play a major role in the future of our healthcare system? It seems very likely – and the Diameter app for diabetes type 2 patients is one of the forerunners. Two people of our University of Twente community have been closely involved in the development of the app: Prof. Dr. Miriam Vollenbroek-Hutten is Chair of Technology Supported Cognitive Training for Rehabilitation at UT and one of the leading researchers within this project. And Health Sciences student Eva van ‘t Hul who joined the Diameter project as part of her thesis work.
What is Diameter and how can it affect lives?
Patients with diabetes type 2 can reduce the illness’s impact on their overall well-being by exercising more or paying attention to their diet. That’s why in 2016 internist Goos Laverman turned to Miriam Vollenbroek for help in tracking activities of his patients. Miriam: “For me, the main question was: ‘How can I collect data and share that information with patients, so they gain insight in their behaviour?’ Because you can’t make daily decisions on data if you only get them once every three months during your doctor’s visit. This is one area in which eHealth – for example, with an app like the Diameter offering daily information – can be very helpful.”
Are people interested in the use of an app that tracks their activities, glucose levels and diet? That’s what Health Sciences student Eva investigated in a preliminary study. “In my survey, patients were asked to give their opinion about the usefulness and added value of the Diameter. We found that people like to have insight in their lifestyle behaviour and blood sugar values. Or to know what the effect is of half an hour of exercise after dinner, or of drinking orange juice in the morning instead of tea.”
Are apps like this really a solution for healthcare issues, like long waiting times and high costs?
“I think eHealth can be the bridge between people and technology”, Eva shares. “Tech can do so much for certain groups of patients. Blended care – combining an app with personal care by professionals – can result in fewer hospital visits or complications. And looking at the outcomes of my thesis, people are really interested in using something like this.”
Miriam agrees. “I don’t have the illusion that eHealth is the cure, but it can certainly help, as long as patient care is leading. I hope technology will be given the place it deserves in healthcare, where it can provide optimal support. My dream is to start from a holistic view of the patient and to provide highly personalised care when and where the patient needs it.”
How do you see the future of healthcare?
Miriam: “That is a subject I like to reflect on with my chair. It’s evident we have to maka a transition towards a different care system in order to keep problems in healthcare manageable. If we can embrace virtual concepts well, we will work on future-proof care. But we need people in healthcare institutions working on the interface of care and science, people who can implement and try the evidence-based outcomes. I enjoy building those bridges between the daily medical practice and science, committing my knowledge and skills to improving our care.”
Are tech and health not two very different areas of expertise?
Eva: “I actually chose to study Health Sciences, because this programme covers more than just the medical field. Here, you study the connection between tech and patients, or between policy and patients and what can be improved in that area."
The Diameter is a good example, Miriam adds: “This project is a very multidisciplinary story. We really need each other, and failing to recognise that is a real danger. It's inspiring to look at an issue from different disciplines, such as Computer Science or Psychology. I've gained a far richer understanding of the medical and technological worlds involved in a solution like this.”
Eva, how important was gaining a broader view in your choice for this master’s degree?
“Getting a master’s degree, to me, is about deepening knowledge. I gained different insights. For example, I learned to look beyond face value, and how to approach problems from different angles. Before Health Sciences, I studied International Communications and Media and worked as a digital marketeer. However, I didn't get much satisfaction from it. I was interested in health and technology, so I started looking for a degree programme that combined the two. And I am content with my choice; this programme actually is satisfying. So, if you are a college student and in doubt, check out your options! Even if you have a completely different background than the one you’re now interested in, like me, there are a lot of possibilities.”
What can students bring to the table in such a big project?
Eva: “Even though the period for working on your thesis is short, I felt I was really a part of the research. I was free to give my input, and when I shared my opinion it was appreciated. We did most of our meetings online because of Covid, but I still felt very involved.”
Although Miriam no longer directly supervises many students, she hopes to inspire them: “I want to trigger students to think critically, and ask themselves 'What do I want to contribute?' Within Health Sciences, there are many important themes a student can invest in. Think about global health, transforming hospitals or personalised health coaching, as in the case of the Diameter app. I like the eagerness and open-minded attitude of students, and I hope they realise we really need them for the future of healthcare.”