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Innovation by education

  • Frans van der Helm

In 2014, Medical Delta launched the Bachelor’s programme in Clinical Technology. Professors Eric Sijbrands (Professor of Internal Medicine at Erasmus MC) and Frans van der Helm (Professor in Biomechatronics & Biorobotics at TU Delft) have both played a key role in developing the programme. “I had expected a slow start,” says Sijbrands, “but the number of applications was  immediately overwhelming; it exceeded all our expectations.”

The Bachelor’s programme is a response to the growing need for technically skilled medical professionals. “Technology plays an increasingly important role in healthcare, varying from surgical robots to advanced medical scans, and 3D-printed artificial organs,” says Sijbrands. “These innovative technologies call for a new type of professional, with both medical and technical knowledge.”

Robot-assisted surgery

“Modern surgeons can use the ‘Da Vinci system’ to remove tumours,” explains van der Helm. “Da Vinci is a robot-assisted device with high-resolution cameras and tiny surgical instruments. During a Da Vinci operation, the surgeon sits at a console three or four metres from the patient. The Da Vinci system translates the surgeon’s hand movements into precise movements of the surgical instruments, which can bend and rotate much further than a human hand. The system enables the surgeon to operate with enhanced vision, precision and control, improving patient recovery and outcome. However, the surgeon should also be able to adjust Da Vinci’s software settings, for instance, if the margins of resection turn out to contain cancer cells. The majority of medical doctors don’t have the appropriate technical knowledge to do this. So to truly reap the benefits of technological innovations such as the Da Vinci system, we need professionals who can operate at the interface of technology and medicine.”

Medical Delta is in an excellent position to inspire a newgeneration of enthusiastic young researchers and medical professionals.
Frans van der Helm, Professor in Biomechatronics & Biorobotics at TU Delft

Minor programme

Sijbrands goes on to explain how the minor programme came about. “Frans and I sat down to discuss how to interest students in the interface of technology and medicine. We first developed a minor programme in Medicine for Technical Students. This is a six-month track within the technical Bachelor’s programme. It’s basically a crash course in medicine for technical students, consisting of biomedical and clinical courses as well as practical assignments in which students use technology to solve medical problems. They learn how to develop medical devices to improve diagnostics and treatment. Medical Delta offered the course for the first time in 2010, and we’ve gradually improved it since then. This year, 59 students registered – it’s clearly popular!”

Bachelor’s programme

A few years later, the professors initiated the development of what later became a flagship of Medical Delta: a complete three-year Bachelor’s programme in Clinical Technology. Students are trained in medicine and medical technology, and in addition acquire clinical, academic and communication skills. After graduation, participants in the Minor programme become engineers able to design medical devices. Students who major in Clinical Technology, however, become medical professionals who are expert in medical technologies. On graduation, they can join the multidisciplinary medical team and have permission to carry out many of the acts that can only be performed legally by medical doctors. “These are truly unique professionals, combining the best of two worlds: they know what’s best for a patient from a clinical and a technological perspective,” says Van der Helm. “The Bachelor’s programme is popular: about 400 students apply for the 100 places that are available.”

Fertile ground

The minor and Bachelor’s programmes are a joint effort of TU Delft, LUMC, Erasmus University Rotterdam, and Erasmus MC. The majority of lectures and practicals are taught at TU Delft, while clinical practicals are mostly taught at Leiden and Rotterdam. “We wanted the best teachers from the Medical Delta institutions, but these people are often swamped by clinical, scientific and teaching obligations,” says Sijbrands.  “So we had to insist a little in the beginning, but I was surprised to see how fast people committed to it. By teaching together, these medical doctors, researchers and engineers are interacting intensively. This is fertile ground for the formation of all sorts of collaborations, including joint research projects.”

Passion for teaching

Van der Helm and Sijbrands share a passion for teaching. Van der Helm received a prize as the most inspiring teacher and research supervisor at TU Delft in 2012. “I like to educate students to become better than ourselves,” he says. “To me, teaching is the most important product of academic institutions. My scientific papers may be read by 30 or 40 peers, but the impact of teaching 30 or 40 students will be much larger. Medical Delta is in an excellent position to inspire a new generation of enthusiastic young researchers and medical professionals.”

Next step

The team is now preparing two new Master’s programmes. “The first generation of Clinical Technology Bachelor’s students will graduate next year,” says Sijbrands. “So we’re currently developing two Technical Medicine Master’s programmes, in which these students can specialise further. The first focuses on sensing technologies that monitor the status of patients, the second on imaging technologies such as CT and MRI. Starting in September 2017, graduates of the Bachelor’s programme can enrol in these Masters’ programmes. Alternatively, they can choose one of the bridging programmes that will prepare them for a Master’s in Medicine or Biomedical Engineering. However, we expect the number of students taking these alternative paths to be relatively small.”

Revolutionary

“As a teacher, I’ve repeatedly witnessed the enormous added value of combining medical and technological knowledge,” says Sijbrands. “For instance, Minor students managed to develop a working prototype of a medical instrument and even a patent application in only a few weeks’ time. This is revolutionary! I’m convinced that these people will develop innovations in healthcare and medical research in the future.”

Interview by: Linda van den Berg