Erwin Hans uses mathematics to improve healthcare

Erwin Hans is known for saying that his research is hard to exhibit. However, the corona crisis has many households worrying on a daily basis about the state of intensive care wards in the Netherlands. This is one of the things that the professor of Operations Management in Healthcare has been working on for decades: healthcare logistics, but seen from the perspective of mathematics and industrial engineering and management. ‘What stood out to me in particular during the crisis was the logistics of supplies and equipment. Normally, hospitals tell us that they have plenty inventory. During the crisis, however, there was suddenly an impending shortage of face masks and respiratory equipment. COVID-19 is a freak accident, of course, but it showed us that our supplies can indeed run out. A crisis situation like this forces hospitals to make certain choices. After all, it is impossible to account for all risks all the time. Doing so would make our healthcare unaffordable.’

Prof.Dr.Ir. Erwin Hans
“In the years to come, more and more healthcare will be provided at home. At the same time, the logistics of home care are still in their infancy, especially compared to hospitals and the industry.”

With seventeen years’ worth of proofs of concept and prototypes from the Center for Healthcare Operations Improvement & Research (CHOIR) in Twente, Hans believes that hospitals today are far more aware of the logistical challenges they face. ‘We already made clear what the best patient-oriented methodology is and how you can break through the isolationism that exists between different departments. The ZGT hospitals and the Maartenskliniek in Nijmegen, for example, have come a long way in that regard. The philosophy is now gradually spreading to other Dutch hospitals. Indirectly, this is the result of our research and education, but mostly it is thanks to the many CHOIR alumni and our spinoff Rhythm BV.’

In the years to come, more and more healthcare will be provided at home. At the same time, the logistics of home care are still in their infancy, especially compared to hospitals and the industry. Just look at the myriad improvements that can still be made with regard to planning in teams.’ Hans is a major proponent of multidisciplinary methods. ‘At the BMS faculty, we are making great progress when it comes to combining the strengths of everyone who is conducting research into healthcare in Health@BMS. Collaboration in disciplines is needed to make progress in the healthcare sector. Those disciplines are all present and accounted for here. We have experts in telemedicine, self-diagnostics, public administration, information systems, Internet of Things, human resources and so much more! Personally, I know a lot about the logistical aspects. It is the perfect field in which to make a real difference for all stakeholders together, precisely because it is such a multi-faceted issue.’

These days, Hans is taking the first steps towards translating his expertise in healthcare logistics to the field of home care in collaboration with Thuiszorg West Brabant (TWB) in Roosendaal. ‘That collaboration started out via a subject of the industrial engineering and management master's programme. Parties from the healthcare and industrial sectors presented their perceived logistical problems and groups of students were then tasked with identifying core problems from an organisational and technical perspective. Each group then gave its project to the next group to develop a solution. That immediately began to result in a ton of prototype solutions, much to the excitement of Thuiszorg West Brabant. This allows us to quickly put experiences gained in an educational context into practice.’ A CHOIR doctoral candidate will join TWB shortly to continue working on this project.

Research and education

It is clear: research and education have become inseparably intertwined for Erwin Hans. He has no trouble getting his passion for his field across to others. His well-stocked prize cabinet full of education prizes is ample proof of that. It is no surprise that alumni from the Industrial Engineering and Management programme have since gotten jobs at hospitals as experts in healthcare logistics. ‘It is important to me to let students experience their very limit. It is only when they get out of their comfort zone that they really learn something.  As students prepare for their final thesis project, I therefore ask them to think about what they want to learn before entering the real world. No, I do not let them choose the easy road. Instead, I want them to choose things they are not good at, so we can make that a focal point of their graduation process. They don't believe me when I tell them I used to have a fear of public speaking. I was able to turn my weakness into a strength.’

Hans believes good education is primarily about establishing the right culture. ‘Work hard, play hard - that is what I believe in. You have to do that together as a team of lecturers and students. I don't want to be the kind of professor who merely drones on and on about a difficult subject in a lecture theatre or via a video connection. Instead, we get together from time to time over coffee. We do all that within a close-knit yet professional home base. As lecturers, we give feedback to students, but we expect them to do the same for us. Students have to learn that - after finishing their studies - they will enter an environment in which it feels safe to constantly give and receive feedback. Ultimately, our alumni are the exponents and ambassadors of our education.’

About Erwin Hans

Erwin Hans completed his study of applied mathematics at the UT in 1996, which he then followed up with a PhD track and a position as researcher. He has been working as professor of Operations Management in Healthcare since 2013. He is the co-founder of the CHOIR (Center for Healthcare Operations Improvement & Research) research group and of Rhythm BV, a consultancy agency in the field of healthcare logistics. Erwin Hans is a frequent speaker at national and international events and a popular lecturer for healthcare administrators, physicians and logistics managers who wish to learn more about integral capacity management in the healthcare sector. As the seven-time winner of Decentralised Education Prizes and the winner of the Central Education Prize in 2015, Hans is a celebrated lecturer associated with various BSc and MSc programmes at the University of Twente.

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