“I try to connect technology to care, and I try to connect research to the real world. On one side there are the developers and engineers. I imagine them as having Einstein hair and white coats working in laboratories around the world to develop the most fantastic tools and devices. On the other side there are the people working in health care, who are completely unfamiliar with the research side of things. In fact, many of them don't even want to know about it. My goal is to connect the two worlds. I recently heard someone say that true creativity is to see a door where others only see a wall.”
Progress through cooperation
Luc de Witte
Luc's key motivations
Is this something you do for idealistic reasons? He hesitates. "Well yes," he answers, as if to say "But of course!" And then hesitates again. "Well, I also do it because I enjoy it, you know..." He continues. "I think—and I've thought this since I was a student—I think we pay too much attention to curative care and spectacular breakthroughs. They're important too, of course. I would certainly want the very best treatment if I had cancer. But I also think that long-term care—the care for the elderly and those with cognitive and physical disabilities—should be getting more attention. And it's precisely in those sectors that resources are dwindling rapidly. That's one of my motivators. The second is that I find the worldwide inequality problem very troubling. In health care, the trend is toward a system in which people with money get the best care and people without money have to make do with a little less. That's always been one of the underlying motivations for me. It's made me realize that elderly care is an interesting sector too, and that it's possible to do exciting work in the disabled care sector—work that's also meaningful."
Technology can correct the balance in health care
"Technology can give people tools of their own to help them manage a limitation and participate more fully in society. We show how we use innovations in everyday health care practice. We do that in different ways. In health care robotics, we develop and implement new robot applications for care purposes. We work on this with a lot of other health care organizations, businesses, and research institutes. The applications address real problems in health care. "For example, we're now studying whether we can use robots with elderly patients suffering from dementia. Our trial involves Paro, a robot baby seal, which is shown to reduce stress and depression in these patients. We're also studying the effects of KASPAR, a communication robot, on learning in autistic children. But that isn't everything. Sometimes our research involves very simple tools. Severely disabled people who lack hand function can't operate a computer. It makes a huge difference to them to have a tool that suddenly makes that possible. All at once, they have access to everything that other people consider absolutely normal nowadays. For example, we're involved in the McArm project, whose goal is to deliver a new generation of dynamic arm support. Based on sensor technology, the McArm allows the user to operate advanced computer control functions."
We connect the separate fields
I ask Luc about the organization that brings together everything he does under one umbrella: the Centre of Expertise for Innovative Care and Technology (EIZT). "The idea behind the center is to connect all the separate fields. We've set up project teams there that include people from very different types of organizations. We can do more by working together. You could say that our motto is 'Progress through cooperation'. That's certainly true for our work at the center, and it's getting better all the time. We're now seeing evolving networks of elderly care institutions and institutions for mentally disabled care that share things with each other. They're now at the point where they can take on some pretty big innovation programs together, something they couldn't do on their own."
How can you ensure that everyone has access to the technology they need?
"There's an enormous discrepancy between what's technically feasible and what an elderly or disabled person actually has access to. So while we're investing a lot of money in technological advances and new tools and aids, only a disappointingly small percentage is actually covered under the our national health care program. In fact, things are actually shifting in the opposite direction. And I believe that applies worldwide." Does De Witte also notice any improvement? Any positive trend? "That's a tricky question! In terms of the overall trend—the issue of inequality and the attention that this sector gets—I don't see any real changes. But where I have noticed an improvement is in all the interest being shown in the domain in which we work, in the potential of technology, and in how it can be applied to care. That interest has grown enormously, and business is booming. If I were to accept every invitation that I get nowadays, I'd be giving lectures on the subject five times a week. In that sense, there's a lot happening. It's clearly a positive trend. One important question, however, is how we can let people know about all these new opportunities. "At Brightlands, we believe that the biggest problems often give rise to the best ideas. We call that 'The Power of Impossibility'. I enjoy the challenge of trying to reverse these kinds of negative trends by taking an expert look at the potential of technology."
I try to connect technology to care, and I try to connect research to the real world
Luc de Witte
One last question: Can you comment on an article in today's paper?
The City of Heerlen intends to specialize in elderly care. He hasn't read the news report yet, but he is already familiar with it. "Yes, that's a project that we're involved in. We're working on a large-scale project in Heerlen in which we've 'adopted' three neighborhoods, and we're exploring whether we can collaborate with local residents there on new approaches to innovation. Together, we're working to make their neighborhood future-proof, so that people will want to remain there, and so on. The government health care agency Zorginstituut Nederland has now designated these neighborhoods as one of its four 'incubators', as it calls them. That's important to the municipal authorities, because Heerlen is one of the towns where the population is aging fastest and the birth rate is declining most rapidly. We could be difficult about it and just say 'Gee, what shame for all of you'. But we've decided to see it as a great opportunity, an opportunity for innovation."
Luc de Witte is professor of Care and Technology at Zuyd University of Applied Sciences and at Maastricht University. His role is to put technology in care on the agenda at both organizations, in research and in education. At Zuyd University, he heads a thirty-person team dedicated to this task. At Maastricht University, he is supervising a number of PhD candidates in the subject and was himself one of the initiators of the Centre for Care Technology Research (CCTR), a center of research excellence in outpatient care technology certified by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) and the Netherlands Organization for Health Research and Development (ZonMw). CCTR is a formal alliance between Maastricht University (CAPHRI), the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO), the University of Twente, and the Netherlands Institute for Health Services Research (Nivel). In his position at Zuyd University, he was involved in setting up the Center of Expertise for Innovative Care and Technology (EIZT), a public-private partnership involving approximately thirty-five health care organizations, businesses, research and educational institutions, and other stakeholders. De Witte is the director of the center, a network of parties collaborating in a research and innovation program. The CCTR and EIZT networks are mutually reinforcing. There is considerable overlap between the work carried out by EIZT at Zuyd University and the work carried out by CCTR at Maastricht University.