Alumni experiences

alumni experiences

Sophie Spitters

Imperial College London

PhD student

What are your activities within the organization?

The group I belong is engaged in applied research aimed at improving healthcare and getting the outcomes of medical research put into practice. As a PhD student I have my own research project, in which I am preparing, conducting and publishing a 3-year study.

PhD project

In England, about 1 in 3 people suffer from some form of allergy. However, there are very few allergologists and general practitioners are hardly trained in treating allergies. In response to this situation, a group of medical specialists in London developed a healthcare programme aimed at improving the treatment of children with allergies. The programme itself was successful (and cost-effective), but implementation did not go smoothly and the changes they introduced did not last. They are currently rolling out a similar programme in another area. 

In my research, the focus is on the implementation of healthcare trajectories for children with allergies. By analyzing the implementation activities and the implementation problems in these two projects, and comparing the data with those from similar projects in other regions, I aim to develop an intervention model for the successful implementation of such healthcare trajectories. I hope to make a distinction between core activities that should be a part of every project and context-dependent activities. I am also looking at the role of supporting methods, such as stakeholder mapping and process mapping, in implementation processes. 

How much of the knowledge you gained during your studies do you use in your current work?

Two key things that come to mind are the philosophy and methods behind human-centred design, and the principles of resilience engineering. Other than that, the main assets I gained as a student are research and communication skills. 

Human-centred design came up in several classes, but it wasn’t until my HFE graduation project at Smart Homes that I really learned a lot about it. The idea is that if you are going to develop something for a certain group of people, you should gave those people centre stage and involve them in the design process. What are their exact problems, what do they as good solutions, is the end product user-friendly? It is a way of aligning your product with the characteristics and wishes of the actual users. In my PhD project, I am using these ideas and methods to make sure the new treatment procedures match the needs and wishes of patients, doctors and other relevant caregivers. 

In resilience engineering I learned to analyze the normal functioning of a given system. The better you understand normal functionalities, the more systematically you can solve problems before accidents occur. This approach also means you can strengthen what is already working well. Caregivers in the healthcare sector tend to spend a lot of their time ‘putting out fires’, because of the heavy workload and the many emergencies. The result is that there is little or no time for dealing with structural issues in a way that would actually reduce stress and strengthen resilience. Implementing a new healthcare trajectory is like making a transition from normal functioning to a new – and hopefully better – way of working. 

What do you think is the added value of human factors in technology design?

Technology is not highly relevant in my position, but human factors certainly play a major role in improving healthcare! There are many aspects that affect the way in which people work and can work, such as teamwork, job responsibilities, equipment usage, organizational culture and the way in which the work is organized. Understanding these human factors can help us create an environment in which doctors and patients can function at their best – the ultimate goal being the best possible care for patients. 

What are your ambitions for the future? 

 Using knowledge and science to make a real contribution to society really inspires me. This is why I would like to keep on doing applied research, whether at a university or with a corporate R&D department - or perhaps by adding the scientific angle in a practical team. As for topics, I enjoy technology, healthcare and the role of humans in both fields. At Enschede I learned a lot about technology, my PhD is all about healthcare – so perhaps in the future I will be able to combine the two.

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