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Thomas van den Akker and Joanne Verweij: Champions in Maternal and Fetal Care 

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May 17, 2024

In the second interview of our series “Faces Behind LUMC Global”, we focus on Prof. Thomas van den Akker and Dr. Joanne Verweij, two gynecologists specializing in perinatology at LUMC, to share their views on the field of global maternal health and the role of LUMC Global.  

Thomas van den Akker is a trained medical specialist who began his career as a medical doctor in International Health and Tropical Medicine in Malawi. Apart from being a gynecologist at LUMC, he also is a Professor of Global Maternal Health at VU Amsterdam focusing on maternal care. For several years now he has been active in conducting research in low and middle-income countries and in guiding several Ph.D. candidates affiliated with LUMC Global. Joanne Verweij, enjoying an equally interesting career, focuses more on fetal care rather than maternal care. Witnessing her first delivery as a student in a large Aboriginal community in Australia, she saw first-hand the disparities in quality of care that women and babies receive. Moreover, she grew up in the south of Africa which has shaped her perspective on internationalization. In addition to her clinical work, she also supervises Ph.D. students who are part of LUMC Global. 

Learning by doing
Both clinicians stress the importance of internationalization in research and maternal and fetal care. They encourage students to pursue international experiences during their studies, provided these are well guided and the programs they are involved in are well-structured. Internationalization also offers a win-win situation to medical professionals, since Dutch medical doctors can learn a lot about clinical cases which have become a rarity in the Netherlands, while they can also bring with them a lot of technical know-how, thereby strengthening institutions in other countries. As Thomas puts it: “Internationalization is not just about sending people abroad; it’s about creating a win-win situation for all parties involved.”

Thomas and Joanne agree that essential characteristics for students, researchers and medical staff interested in working abroad are being curious, having an open mind, and a willingness to learn from one another. The goal should not only be to strengthen medical systems in other places; in certain situations, medical professionals from low and middle-income countries know more than we do. For instance, in the process of making the healthcare system more sustainable, there are lessons that we can learn. Joanne: “We can learn a lot from the people we collaborate with. There are projects where they can achieve much more with less, and we can learn from that.” 

LUMC Global’s role in connecting medical doctors with people in low and middle-income countries is pivotal, providing critical logistical support such as arranging mobility grants for medical staff. However, further collaborations are held back by a vast shortage of housing in the Netherlands, a concern shared by both professionals.  

Breaking barriers
Both Thomas and Joanne are certain internationalization will remain an integral part of their medical careers. Advocating for more equitable international collaborations, for instance by equally dividing first, second and last authorship positions, they firmly wish to enable additional partnerships. Thomas: “We need to rethink how we value contributions in research collaborations. It shouldn’t solely be based on authorship but rather on the impact and contribution of each individual.” 

To Joanne, the potential of LUMC Global is its capacity to drive change by breaking with traditional norms and patterns. By having a voice directed at policy makers and boards of directors of academic medical centers, LUMC Global can introduce new strategies or ideas, and suggest reforms. As a platform connecting all departments within LUMC to its international partners, she says, “LUMC Global has the power to enable change by breaking deeply grounded patterns.” 

Thomas and Joanne both exemplify how international collaboration can lead to improved mother and child care. By combining the expertise and perspectives of professionals from around the world, they hope to continue the vast progress already been made.

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