Bridging healthcare gaps through digital innovation

In an ever-changing healthcare environment, where digitalisation is on the rise, access to digital healthcare is crucial. In the Netherlands, 2 to 4 million people, especially in the lower socio-economic strata, struggle with digital literacy difficulties. Esther Metting, assistant professor at UMCG, emphasises the crucial role of digital access, especially for vulnerable groups such as COPD patients.

After more than a decade of research on COPD patients on various temporary contracts, Esther Metting has been given a permanent position as assistant professor at UMCG's Data Science Center in Health (DASH), thanks in part to the national Accelerate in Health Sector Plan. In this new position, she can better understand the organisation and collaborate with colleagues to advance her research. With the stability of a permanent position, she has taken on a PhD student and is excited about building her own research group without having to worry about ongoing supervision.

Benefits of digital care

With a background in psychology and epidemiology, Metting investigates the accessibility of digital care applications for different patient groups. For example, she examines the potential benefits of digital care for COPD patients. "People with COPD are generally a bit older, have had more hands-on training and are less experienced with computers. We also see more problems with vision and hand-eye coordination in this group, as well as a fear of losing contact with the doctor. All these barriers make digitisation of care a challenge for this group. In turn, I see it as a challenge to identify all this properly and find appropriate solutions for it. Which of course can also be extrapolated to other patient groups."



In a blog on ICT&Health last year, Metting highlighted the need for better digital accessibility to healthcare, especially in addressing the digital divide, a concern that is particularly relevant in Groningen. "In the province of Groningen, distances to healthcare providers are greater than the national average," Metting noted. "Fewer hospitals and GPs per square kilometre pose a challenge, especially for people living at home with conditions such as severe COPD. It is crucial that this group can make effective use of digital healthcare solutions to prevent a significant part of the Dutch population from being left behind."

Wide network

Mettings's varied career, from digitalisation project manager to associate professor at the University of Groningen, has provided a wide network. Reflecting on this, she says: "My different roles allow me to approach research with a comprehensive perspective." Now that she has a stable position, Metting actively contributes to digital health. She gives guest lectures on digital skills and is an eHealth expert at UMCG’s Data Science Center in Health (DASH).

Collaborating on projects with businesses and healthcare institutions, she aims to improve access to healthcare, noting, "What we develop within this programme can later be applied across the country." Involved in the implementation of eHealth initiatives such as Safe@Home, Metting stresses the need for careful planning. "Technical aspects are crucial, but also organising guidance from healthcare professionals and making sure patients understand it," she asserts. And thus Metting is exploring how to optimise support for patients while minimising the time and financial burden for healthcare providers.

Sector plan: Accelerating Healthcare

Since 2022, UMCG has received significant funding from the national sector plan for Medical and Health Sciences. This investment is aimed at strengthening the basis of scientific research and education, including the creation of more jobs and permanent positions. Together with other UMCs and regional partners, the UMCG plays an important role in vital areas such as prevention, data-driven innovation and the practical application of (fundamental) research.