University teaching hospitals should devote more of their medical research to issues encountered in daily practice. At present, the researchers tend to put too much emphasis on fundamental research and specialist issues.

This was recently stated by the Heath Council of the Netherlands in its advisory report for the Dutch government entitled ‘Onderzoek waar je beter van wordt’ (‘Research that makes you better’). In the course of their everyday work, general practitioners, nurses and municipal care workers run up against all sorts of problems that are given little to no attention by the academic research programmes.

According to the Health Council, this is mainly due to the fact that funding programmes for medical research are based on performance. Important in this respect is that research findings are published in reputable academic journals and achieve high citation scores. And fundamental and specialist research have a particularly good chance of scoring high on these specific criteria.

Closer communication with the field

A wider range of parties should be able to influence the evaluation and course of scientific research programmes at UMCs – including patients’ associations, health insurers and municipal administrations. In addition, the university teaching hospitals need to work closer together with healthcare providers in their region.

This will take time and money. The Council recommends that the Minister of Health, Welfare and Sport free up funds for the applied research that comes out of these partnerships. This would amount to a “major change of tack”.

The Health Council’s position is in line with a current sentiment that scientific research should pay stronger attention to issues in our society and be less focussed on publication in prestigious academic journals.

Arguing for a clear social purpose is hardly new

For example, the pressure group Science in Transition has been calling for scientific research with a pronounced social focus for some years already. Last spring, its founder Frank Miedema, Dean of UMC Utrecht, said: “Take research into rehabilitation, for example. It’s highly relevant to the general public. But I really need to fight to secure funding for this kind of research, because the leading academic journals published in the US are not particularly interested in it.”

There’s a strong chance that the Council’s recommendations will be well received, since the government has wanted scientific research to serve a clearer economic and social purpose for quite some time now. A number of recent coalitions have tried to encourage collaboration between the academic community and the private sector, through all sorts of policy measures. At the moment, these partnerships are being pursued within the so-called ‘top sectors’.

‘It’s unwise to adopt a short-term perspective’

The university teaching hospitals do not subscribe to the Council’s recommendations, said a representative of their umbrella organisation NFU in de Volkskrant. According to NFU, the Health Council does not seem aware of the degree to which the hospitals have already embraced collaboration with third parties.

In addition, in NFU’s view, we should not underestimate the importance of fundamental research: “We owe many of the procedures used in today’s healthcare to fundamental research performed at an earlier stage. It’s unwise to adopt a short-term perspective.”