Expedition the Healthy North: A new approach to research

What challenges are at the heart of our society? Where are the roots of health problems and social issues? In the new minor 'Expedition the Healthy North', students go looking for answers. Away from their own isolated locations and networks, they explore different disciplines and real communities. Through interaction and fieldwork, they aim to understand what motivates people and develop innovative solutions that truly meet the needs of the communities they want to help.

In this innovative minor, students from Noorderpoort, Hanzehogeschool Groningen and the University of Groningen work together to tackle complex societal health challenges. The primary focus is on the Appingedam region. The northern Netherlands scores low in national health comparisons and faces ongoing health problems, higher healthcare spending and declining overall wellbeing if no measures are taken. In addition, earthquake problems in this particular region worsen mental health concerns among residents. For participants, the expedition begins by exploring opportunities to promote health in their own environment: where they live, work and study. Hedwig Boer, lecturer and coordinator of the minor, explains: 'This minor marks a fundamental shift towards preventive healthcare, where communities actively engage to support their own wellbeing.'

A new form of research

This minor expands the boundaries of traditional research. Classrooms are regularly exchanged for real-world learning environments. Students work with local residents and professionals to address complex health issues that current society is struggling with, such as obesity prevention, combating social isolation and creating healthy living environments in neighbourhoods. There is active transdisciplinary collaboration between students and the involvement of various stakeholders. Boer says: ‘Students learn not only from lecturers, but more importantly from each other and the community. Together with citizens and organisations, they investigate innovative solutions that meet local needs.’

After completing the minor, students have not only acquired theoretical knowledge, but actually gained a lot of practical experience in tackling complex health issues. Boer emphasises the importance of collaboration: 'As a participant, you will be actively trained in interdisciplinary collaboration, design-oriented research and reflection. Reflection on yourself, the context and the process is crucial in the context of complexity: inherent to complex challenges is that they come with a lot of uncertainties, and you need to be able to navigate those.’

Pictured is Hedwig Boer

Expedition to the Future

Two student groups focused on different challenges: improving independent living for the elderly and promoting social cohesion among young people to reduce social and related mental health problems. The need to address these specific health issues emerged from both the declining youth population and the ageing population in the Appingedam region. The students contributed their expertise as context and area specialists. Boer says: ‘We have completed the final presentations and are determining the follow-up. Many intriguing results and insights emerged, not only in terms of the health issues participants worked on but also in terms of our collaborative approach. Stakeholders indicated that they gained a better understanding of their interrelationships with other stakeholders. In addition, both students and teachers recognised that the sense of unity among students is mainly influenced by the amount of time they spend together, rather than factors such as their educational background. Our goal is to further integrate this working method into education and research in order to ultimately change the way of thinking and approach as well.’

The minor 'Expedition the Healthy North' represents a new way of thinking, a new way of research and a new path to a healthier future for residents of the Northern Region. With boundary breaking research and transdisciplinary collaboration, we can work together towards building a healthy society. More information about the minor can be found here.

Sector plan: Accelerating Healthcare

Sector plan: Accelerating Healthcare

Since 2022, UMCG has received substantial funding through the national sector plan for Medical and Health Sciences.. This funding is for strengthening the foundation of scientific research and education, with a focus on generating more appointments and establishing permanent positions. This allocation enables experts such as Hedwig Boer to dedicate themselves to important projects, including the (further) development of this minor. In collaboration with other UMCs and regional partners, the UMCG plays a crucial role in crucial areas such as prevention, data-driven innovation and the practical implementation of (basic) research.