Double interview Prof. Frank Willem Jansen and Prof. Ton van der Steen: doctor succeeds engineer

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

One is trained as an engineer, the other as a doctor. Together they have been part of Medical Delta from the start - almost fifteen years ago. And they have both been allowed to call themselves ‘Medical Delta Professor’ for several years. On October 1, the physician succeeded the engineer as chairman of Medical Delta.

We spoke with the new chairman Prof. Frank Willem Jansen and with resigning chairman Prof. Ton van der Steen. A conversation about how technology and health can no longer do without each other and where this can take us in the future. ”Collaboration now goes without saying, and that's how it should be."

Let's start with current events. The collaboration between doctor and engineer seems even more relevant due to corona. What is your view?

Frank Willem: “As a doctor, I see up close how much healthcare relies on technology. This movement has been going on for a long time, but corona has further accelerated technological applications in healthcare. Think of the increase in remote consultations, but also of all kinds of materials and technical applications such as the production and sterilization of face masks. Innovations that were on the shelf have been introduced more quickly, also outside the hospital. However miserable the situation is, in that respect corona offers a lot of new opportunities.”

Ton: “The importance of technology for healthcare is even more visible now. Especially during the first wave, technological innovations were further developed more quickly and introduced in healthcare. Long procedures were shortened without compromising on security requirements. I hope that the regulators maintain that mindset, which would be good for everyone: mission first, safety always.”

You have both been involved with Medical Delta from the very beginning. What changes and steps have you seen in the collaboration between doctor and engineer over the past 15 years? And what can we still expect?

Ton: “The most important change is that doctors and engineers now know how to find each other much better. Fifteen years ago the worlds were still different from each other. Collaboration now goes without saying, and that's how it should be.”

Frank Willem: “The Clinical Technology study at LUMC, TU Delft and Erasmus MC is, in my opinion, the ultimate proof of the mutual recognition that has arisen. The goal of Medical Delta, to realize technological solutions for healthcare, has been achieved and at the same time more relevant than ever for the future of our healthcare system and our health.”

Ton: “An important aspect is that the changes are happening faster and faster. That's something engineers and doctors have to go along with. For an engineer, this means that you shouldn't want to develop everything in detail before you start applying it, and for a doctor that means looking beyond the here and now.”

Frank Willem: “Doctors are often somewhat conservative when it comes to new developments. First of all, it must be safe. The developments surrounding AI (Artificial Intelligence, ed.), for example, are going very fast, but in the end you as a doctor are responsible and you want to be able to make a diagnosis yourself. AI techniques can help us enormously. As doctors we have to be open to this and think carefully about how we can apply it."

The medical-technological playing field is increasingly broadening, for example to health, prevention, e-health and well-being. What does this mean for Medical Delta studies?

Frank Willem: “Those springs along. Thanks to new techniques and medical insights, we can do more and more in prevention. E-health opens up new possibilities, as does AI. But themes such as sustainability and ‘greening’ healthcare have also become important in recent years.

We have to go along with that. There is still a lot to be gained here, and here too technology can advance healthcare.”

Ton: "It is also good to complete programs that have run well and have yielded a lot at a certain moment or to allow them to move along with a new development."

Frank Willem: "That is also the role of Medical Delta: bringing different disciplines together, giving the research a kick start and ensuring that it becomes independent and can enter society."

A lot has been achieved, including the start of thirteen scientific programs and the set up of ten living labs. Why does that matter?

Ton: “As a society, we have to keep healthcare affordable and manageable. Scientific studies bring together the disciplines that can provide technological solutions for healthcare. Ultimately it is about the application orientation of the research. Living labs form an important bridging function in the process from research to healthcare practice."

Frank Willem: “It is the care professionals who ensure that scientific research from the academic drawing board ends up at the bedside in the care institution. The involvement of healthcare institutions in the living labs is indispensable for making science applicable.”

Does your background as a doctor also play a role in that thought?

Frank Willem: “I think so. As a doctor you always put your patient first, that's what doctors are like. I would also like to bring that further to Medical Delta. Ultimately, we must be able to put the things we come up with as scientists into practice, and that is only possible if we involve healthcare professionals and patients at an early stage and let them contribute their ideas.”

Ton: “I agree, that is an excellent next step in Medical Delta's philosophy. The research must ultimately be useful in the clinic or in society and not linger in the lab. And so you need input from healthcare professionals and patients very early on. As an engineer, you can only experience the way a doctor thinks and acts if you regularly monitor and participate in healthcare.”

Medical Delta is a creative and innovative environment that seems to know no boundaries.

Ton, what are you most proud of?

“Of the colour pink and everything related to it. The ideas of working together on an equal level from different disciplines have become visible. It is not about Medical Delta, but about the importance that Medical Delta pursues. The concept has been important in this. You get the feeling that it is easier to reach a solution if you do it together. In this respect we have made great strides with the programs, the labs, the Scientific Council and the Social Council.

Frank Willem, what challenges do you see as the new chairman?

“There is a continuum in the whole, the organization is running well. But social developments are moving fast and at the same time corona makes implementation a lot more difficult. For example, it is more difficult to bring the network together. We have to get through that vacuum and find a new wind, but we will certainly succeed.

In recent years, many renowned professors have started working together in a Medical Delta context. We have Young Medical Delta for students and PhD candidates. I would like to make an effort to involve the middle group of research talent more in the Medical Delta philosophy. They are the Medical Delta professors of the future.”

Why is being chairman of Medical Delta the best board position in the Netherlands?

Ton: “Well, nice, that’s not how I would call it. Rather relevant. It was quite a challenge to get the enthusiastic collaborations to land within the administrative frameworks of five different academic knowledge institutions. It gives me enormous satisfaction that this has been successful. The scientific programs give wonderful results and many top scientists have been brought together. It is quite rare that they conduct joint research. And it has proved possible to transfer that ideology broadly to other regions. We help each other. I am leaving a beautiful Medical Delta behind and have full confidence that Frank Willem will make it even more beautiful.”

Frank Willem: “In healthcare you run up against limits to what is allowed and what is possible. Medical Delta is a creative and innovative environment that seems to have no boundaries. I do feel that I am part of an ongoing learning process and that gives me a lot of energy.”


Prof. Frank Willem Jansen (1957) is professor of gynecology and has an appointment as Medical Delta professor at both Leiden University and TU Delft. At the LUMC he is program director of the Clinical Technology study, a study that he co-founded. He is also one of the Scientific Leaders of the scientific program Medical Delta NIMIT: Novel Instruments for Minimally Invasive Techniques. As of October 1, he has been appointed chairman of Medical Delta.

Prof. ir. Ton van der Steen (1964) is Head of Biomedical Technology at the Thorax Center of Erasmus MC, professor of Biomedical Technology of the heart and as Medical Delta professor employed at both Erasmus MC and TU Delft. He has been a board member of the KNAW since 1 September. Until October 1, Van der Steen was chairman of Medical Delta, the partnership he co-founded and to which he will stay on as a member of the Scientific Council.

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