Wednesday 28 April 2021
Moving towards the next milestone
Massimo: ‘Sustainability in healthcare – I had never thought about it. What does it mean?'
Wander: 'Ha, it sounds as though it might involve solar panels. But for us, it's a different type of sustainability: ensuring that new knowledge doesn't dissipate, but actually reaches the patient. At UT, we think up some amazing innovations. But how do you make sure they really get used in healthcare?’
Massimo: 'How did you end up in this field?'
Wander: 'Healthcare has always been close to my heart. I guess my education plays a big part in that. My grandmother used to tell inspiring stories about helping others. But during my medical studies, I came up against the hospital system. Doctors tend to think within the boundaries of their own discipline. If a cardiologist says that a patient's heart is fine, they refer them to another specialist. That way of working did not suit me. I was looking for a different place in healthcare and decided on a master's degree in health science with a focus on technology. A background in health science can take you in many different directions. You can develop hardware or guidelines, apps or algorithms, for example. And gradually, innovation becomes more important too. These three components - the clinical, the technological and the entrepreneurial aspect - are essential to me.'
Massimo: 'What makes the entrepreneurial aspect so important to you?'
Wander: 'My drive is to make sure scientists can make an impact with their research. Not only by publishing articles in important academic journals or obtaining a new grant, but especially by ensuring that their work improves a patient's life. I read that you carry out interesting research, that really focuses on interaction between technology and patient. Medical-technological research tends to concentrate on the clinical or technical process only. We often forget that, if you want to use new technology in practice, you will also need to deal with policymakers, legislators, healthcare professionals, investors, associations, and insurance companies. If you manage to engage these stakeholders in your research at an early stage, you are much more likely to be able to really change something.'
Massimo: 'When I started working with Ottobock, a leading German prosthetic company, I started to realise exactly what you just said. Until then, I had mostly thought of the patient as the main beneficiary. At Ottobock, I realised: if I want my innovation to leave the lab and reach the market, I need to involve many more players and stakeholders.'
Wander: 'It's nice to hear that we think along the same lines. It's a different starting point to not just think in terms of your own profession, but to also look at all the connections between your work and other disciplines. If we express such a way of working at UT, our knowledge will benefit more people.'
Massimo: ‘I think a large majority of scientists in the fields of biomedical engineering and wearable robotics ultimately do their research to help people. So, it's really cool you can help them have a meaningful impact. After graduating, I too wanted to use my engineering skills for helping people, somehow. As part of my master’s thesis I had the chance to do work related to robotic exoskeletons for rehab. That's how it all started. Around the same time, a friend of mine had an accident. I witnessed how motor impairment can affect people’s lives. That inspired me to work on assistive and rehabilitation technologies. When I think about what you do, I must confess that TechMed sometimes still feels like something unknown, something separate from what we do at the university. Do you feel the same - and could we build a stronger bridge?'
Wander: 'I'm glad you asked, because that's something I struggle with, too. I would like to break down the wall that some people experience between TechMed and the different departments. Because we can help each other. We have the expertise to understand the field of stakeholders, for example, like we just discussed. So, to anyone involved in health, technology and innovation: I'm your man. Everyone can benefit from what we do at TechMed.'
Wander: ‘We do all kinds of things - give workshops, supervise projects, provide tools like checklists and templates, or just sit down with someone. We help comply with technical or ethical guidelines and help with the correct paperwork for clinical testing. To researchers, these things sometimes are unknown or seem unnecessary, so it makes sense that they don’t immediately think about them. But in the end you need to go through these steps to valorise. We help scientists focus on their research and reach that next milestone at the same time.’
Massimo: ‘Good to know that help is available. In our engineering department, not many people are familiar with medical ethical proposals and we haven’t standardised our ways of contacting hospitals. It’s great that TechMed can help with that. Perhaps you could give introductory seminars, so that more people are aware of that opportunity?'
Wander: ‘Good idea! In fact, all PhD students should be required to visit TechMed, for a start.'