Prof. Andrea Evers is a health psychologist who studies the role of behavioural factors in health and disease. As a Medical Delta Professor, she is now affiliated with Leiden University (Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences), TU Delft (Industrial Design) and Erasmus University (ESHPM).
In that position, she conducts research at the intersection of various disciplines. "The reward is that you end up being distinctive, trying to push the boundaries of science and blazing new trails that can make a difference to others."
"I have always been interested in the intersection between behavioural science, medicine and technology," says Evers. "Since not many researchers explore this area, a lot of innovation is possible here. And people with chronic conditions such as diabetes or heart disease are particularly affected by this interface. A disease has both biological and physiological factors and there are few treatments that address these. Technology can play an important role in this: it makes measurement and monitoring possible and you can develop apps to support people in healthy behaviour. For me, the appointment as Medical Delta Professor is a welcome confirmation of what I have been doing my whole academic life: interdisciplinary cooperation.”
Why is collaboration important?
“Currently, it is common that knowledge is not scaled up, because everyone wants to invent something new with their own group. But that doesn't get us anywhere and that's a pity. On the contrary, we need to cooperate broadly and connect research, so that we can make each other better and strengthen knowledge. We have three top universities in the province of Zuid-Holland that are all very different, that are experts in their fields, and that are now working together. I find that fantastic to see.
Besides building networks and making contacts, we also want to develop more joint projects within Medical Delta. A good example is the ongoing BENEFIT project in which we support people with cardiovascular diseases to maintain a healthy lifestyle for a long period of time. Various researchers are linked up in this project and we work together with a wide range of social and private partners. Another example that is still in the pipeline is the Healthy Society project with the municipality of Leiden. Researchers, residents and social partners will work together with the aim of making Leiden the healthiest city in The Netherlands."
What are the challenges of collaboration?
“Collaboration is often underestimated because people have to make an extra effort. First of all, you have to think about who can enrich your work and then proactively seek contact. And then take the time to explain the added value of cooperation and to understand each other. If you do that well, you create mutual enthusiasm. Then you have to convert that into research proposals. These in turn raise new questions, such as which method is to be used. Because you are working on a cutting edge, you constantly have to take new steps and not all the expertise is already available. Conducting research in this way therefore requires extra time and resources. You have to be aware of that. But with a bit of patience and enthusiasm you will eventually get there. The reward is that you are ultimately distinctive, that you try to push the boundaries of science and take new paths that can make a difference to others.”
What motivates you to seek out the intersection of disciplines?
“The traditional way is often not innovative enough to make a difference. I find it fun and important to look for new ways, which also produce impactful results. Research into placebo effects, for example, shows how important the context is for the success of a treatment. It is not just a medicine that does the job; there is much more at play. Research is needed to make this clear. So that doctors know this and take it into account. For example, how much stress a person experiences makes a big difference to their recovery after heart surgery. And yet this gets very little attention in regular healthcare. Chronic diseases are increasing in The Netherlands due to an unhealthy lifestyle. While little is done in the way of prevention programmes, because health insurance companies do not always reimburse for this. As a result, we pay for illnesses and not for health, which is a strange incentive. If we break through that, our society can become much better.”
Where will Medical Delta be in ten years' time?
“In ten years' time, interdisciplinary cooperation will be the norm and we may even have one large university. Medical Delta is leading the way in this respect, but it could broaden its horizons by paying more attention to social sciences. I also think that we should change the name to Health Delta in which we focus much more on the broad perspective on health and prevention.”
Which other researcher surprised you?
“Thomas Hankemeier from Leiden University. From the perspective of life sciences, he focuses on broad diagnostics and personalised health strategies. We lobby for the same thing from different backgrounds. It is good that we meet each other within Medical Delta and see the connection.”