"The Master’s in Psychology was a perfect fit. I received plenty of support during my pre-master's. So, if you're looking for more in-depth education after your college degree, just do it!"
Psychology at UT means more than the classic behavioural analysis. In our Master’s in Psychology, you collaborate on innovations in which tech, behaviour and health come together. And you look for ways that complement - and ultimately improve - healthcare. Anouk Middelweerd (post-doc researcher Lifestyle Coaching at UT) and Anke Scholten (a UT Psychology graduate, now part of the innovation team at Dutch healthcare organisation GGNet) have in common that they both believe in the added value of combining tech with psychology.
You both continued your ‘hbo’ degree with a master’s degree. Why?
“After being active in the medical field as a physiotherapist for several years, I had seen so many patients with the same complaints”, Anouk begins. “All I could do was help them a little, but I couldn’t change their lifestyles. In order to see real improvement, I knew they would have to make lasting adjustments to their lives – and a lot of people don’t have the drive or the ability to do that by themselves. For me, that was a trigger. I wanted to investigate at a deeper level how we can actually help those people. So I decided to go back to school.”
Anke shares a similar experience. She liked her nursing training, but wanted to know more. “I wanted to look at the behaviour behind certain diseases, or to get involved in developing new interventions. The UT Master’s in Psychology was a perfect fit. I received plenty of support during my pre-master's and the transition to university. So, if you're looking for more depth after your college degree, just do it!”
How does a post-doc researcher at UT connect tech and lifestyle?
One of the projects Anouk is currently working on is the Diameter app: an eHealth coaching system for patients with diabetes type 2. The app monitors users’ lifestyle and glucose levels. Psychological input is crucial, because of the huge part our behaviour plays in the daily lifestyle choices we make. Anouk explains how living with diabetes has an impact on someone’s life. “You have a disease that never goes away. Imagine dealing with your illness 24/7. You always have to make choices. And unhealthy choices directly affect your body and well-being.”
Diabetes type 2 can be – partly – reversed if a patient changes his or her lifestyle. What is the role of psychology in that reversal?
“It all starts with insight in lifestyle”, Anke explains. “Sometimes, people are genuinely unaware of how much they eat, or how little exercise they get each day. Even I was unpleasantly surprised by the daily number of steps tracked by my Fitbit. Habits are hard to change and are affected by so many things. Healthy food, for example, is often more expensive than less healthy food. And if you come home late from work, you tend to cook easily or skip your exercise.”
Anouk agrees that changing behaviour just isn't easy. “Every day, you make conscious or unconscious choices. We all do. Even if you have an illness, you have to do most of that decision-making on your own. A diabetes type 2 patient, for instance, will normally see their physician once in a while, receive some advice, go home and face all those choices all day long by themselves again. What do I eat and drink? How do I go to work? Shall I exercise, and how? Just being motivated to change usually isn't enough. You need skills to keep up the good work. If you relapse or have a bad day, it can be really tough to pick up where you left off. I think everyone who ever had a serious New Year’s resolution knows that.”
How can an app influence patients positively, and keep them motivated?
Anke: “There are a lot of ways - supported by scientific theories about behavioural change - of doing that. I’m interested in the psychological mechanisms you can apply to get people to use a lifestyle app, such as a reward system or positive feedback. Getting messages and setting your own goals really does boost your intrinsic motivation.”
According to post-doc researcher Anouk, that is exactly what the Diameter app does. “Patients set their weekly goals in the app. These are then evaluated at the end of the week: the app shows you what you have achieved and helps identify barriers that hindered your performance. Besides that, a patient receives a coaching message twice a day with a tip or some advice. Those messages boost knowledge and insight. So, the Diameter can be a buddy in a patient’s daily life who helps and reminds them of healthy choices.”
What is so fun and rewarding about working on the Diameter project?
Anouk: “First, there are a lot of different students involved. Not only from Psychology, but also from Technical Medicine and Computer Science. There are so many different disciplines at UT, and many of them come together in projects like this. Tech and coaching systems can close the gap between professional care and self-care at home. Such apps can be great tools to prevent healthcare costs from rising further. And I enjoy supervising of students. It’s fun to learn about their different or new views on issues – and for them a project like this is an opportunity to see what it is like to do scientific research and learn to think outside the box together. The connection with technology brings your knowledge out of the textbooks and into practice. You can think along or collaborate on ongoing research and prototypes. Then you develop things that will actually be used. Think about that!”