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No benefit from biomedical knowledge for millions

Millions of Dutch people will not benefit from the biomedical knowledge which is being acquired. 'The revolution of personalised e-health and personalised medicine will pass them by', says Jos van den Broek, lecturer in science communication at the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences of Leiden University and Professor by Special Appointment in Biomedical Science Communication at the Leiden University Medical Center.

A gsm which measures your heartbeat and blood pressure using simple sensors is not a distant possibility; it is just a small innovation away from our present gsm which can already count footsteps and calories. Professor Van den Broek: ‘Our complete personal environment is becoming governed by electronics.' He delivered his inaugural lecture on 26 October on the consequences of this development for biomedical science communication.

He has many examples to demonstrate his point. 'It will shortly be possible to study complete material flows in our bodies, using small implants. Our health will be measurable anywhere and everywhere via the electromagnetic waves of the worldwide web. The technological possibilities are incredible; it is simply not possible to hold back this trend. As science communicators, we have to give this serious consideration. What is the future of the communication of biomedical sciences?’
Health information
In Van den Broek's definition this is more than simply communication on science for journalists. 'I am referring here to all communication on illness and health, between doctor and patient, but also among laymen.' New media such as the PC and internet have in fact brought the medical world into the homes of consumers; the boundaries between the producer and the consumer of health information have become blurred. There are millions of weblogs on health; just searching for ‘Blog + Health’ in Google will give you 400 million hits.’
Knowledge dialogue
A doctor can hardly compete with all the knowledge available in the thousands of patient forums. ‘But they don’t need to,’ Van den Broek asserts. ‘Communicating about science isn’t merely a matter of those who know communicating to those who don’t know. I call this 'feeding the geese'. A knowledge dialogue should be instigated with people who know together with people who know something else. The point of departure should not be ‘equality’ but ‘evenly matched’. This will be far more constructive as we all have a certain amount of knowledge. This is my lecture in a nutshell.’
Van den Broek expects that within ten years it will be possible to measure our health continuously wherever we are. ’The consequences of this ambient intelligence may be far-reaching. For example, who will have access to this knowledge? Insurance companies? Employers? Privacy issues will become an important concern.’

But this is not his only concern. ’If we don’t watch out, these developments will lead to inequality. A large group of people have access to the knowledge and benefit from its acquisition. They are able to follow, read and discuss such biomedical knowledge. They benefit from personalised medicine and personalised e-health. But there are too many people who will not be able to benefit from sharing this knowledge. Take, for example, the one and a half million functionally illiterate people in the Netherlands as well as the group who are in socio-economic terms weaker and the elderly. Within the framework of my professorship, I want to contribute to combatting this social inequality.’

Inquisitive inquirer
Jos van den Broek (1951) studied biochemistry and acquired his PhD in Pharmacology. In order to share the knowledge contained in his dissertation with his fellows who had not studied chemistry, he published a lay version. After obtaining his PhD, Van den Broek worked as a journalist and chief editor for many years with such scientific publications as the Chemisch Weekblad, Bionieuws and Natuur & Techniek. He now teaches science communication at the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences. He is also author and co-author of several popular scientific books such as: Strandvondsten. Over de natuur van zee, strand en duin (2006) and Oud? De duvel is oud! De wetenschap achter gezond oud worden (2007).

Van den Broek calls himself an ‘inquisitive inquirer’ who always wants to know everything. He favours an active transfer of knowledge by participatory means: people must join in. ‘I want to show people that science is often easier than they assume; it’s more fun and closer than people think. Science permeates our lives.’

Inaugural lecture Prof. Dr J.M. van den Broek
Leiden University, The Netherlands
Title: Nice to know - Need to know - Sharing to know. Biomedical science communication in transition

Friday 26 October

Hilje Papma | alfa
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