“We need to actively involve people in vulnerable population groups in research on healthy living”
What do people in vulnerable segments of the population need in order to live healthy lives? This is the question Gera Nagelhout’s research focuses on. The new CAPHRI professor likes to involve her target group in her research. “If you only come up with things for people rather than with them, you will fail to reach them.”
Gera Nagelhout was officially appointed professor of Health and Wellbeing of People with a Lower Socioeconomic Position in December 2019. On 19 March, she delivered her online inaugural lecture “Step by Step Towards a Healthier Life for Everyone”. It argued powerfully in favour of involving people with a lower socioeconomic status in conducting research. “All too often, solid interventions are developed that subsequently fail to reach people in a vulnerable position. We have to go the extra mile for this target group.” She and some of her colleagues did just that by setting up a crowdfunding campaign for an advisory group of people who have to live on a tight budget. “This way, we will already be able to include them in the idea stage of the research process. Later on, we will be able to use project money to fund their participation. The campaign is going very well. I think we’ll reach our goal of raising 7000 euros by the end of March.”
Role of the government
Gera Nagelhout expects interventions developed with input from the target group to be more effective. “In addition, you will have a greater impact if you also change people’s environment. Vulnerable people often live in areas that don’t invite them to exercise more and live healthy lives.” The government has an important role to play in this. According to the professor, it could also take tougher action on industries producing unhealthy products. “By removing them from the discussion table, for example. But also by limiting unhealthy food advertising, reducing taxes on healthy foods and raising taxes on unhealthy foods. The government could also reduce the number of unhealthy food outlets, which constantly tempt people to make unhealthy food choices.”
Gera Nagelhout sees the National Prevention Agreement as a missed opportunity in this regard. The agreement is intended to reduce overweight, smoking and problematic alcohol consumption in the Netherlands. But too many compromises were made, says the professor, who has conducted a lot of research on quitting smoking and alcohol and drug use over the past years. As an example, she cites excise duties on tobacco – a measure that was watered down in the agreement. “This prevention agreement will not succeed in closing the health gap in the Netherlands. The final version doesn’t contain the necessary measures. I suspect the gap may actually widen instead, partly as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Even so, Gera Nagelhout doesn’t seem discouraged in her own efforts to achieve a healthier life for all. On the contrary, she remains optimistic. Ever since she studied Communication Science in Nijmegen and Enschede, she has been conducting research in this area. She received her PhD from the Department of Health Promotion at Maastricht University, where she currently works as a professor.
Her chair is funded by IVO, the Dutch institute for research on lifestyles and addiction. In addition to her work as a professor, Gera Nagelhout holds the position of Chief Science Officer at IVO. “The institute carries out a broad range of research, from more theoretical to very practical, and its target group is people in a vulnerable position. My chair allows me to supervise the PhD students at IVO. This relationship between CAPHRI and IVO actually goes back quite a long way.” Gera Nagelhout feels at home at CAPHRI because of its academic climate and the social value of its research. “I am motivated to conduct socially relevant research that genuinely helps people. Many of my colleagues feel the same way.”
Gera Nagelhout does think that the academic world still has a way to go when it comes to scientific communication. All too often, research results – including those of socially relevant research – remain unused after publication. “This is why it’s important for researchers to go out into the world with their results, for example by using social media, recording a podcast or making a video.” To encourage this behaviour, she launched the #SciCommLunch initiative. During these online scientific communication lunches, guest speakers are invited to give a thirty-minute talk around lunchtime about the innovative ways in which they draw attention to their research results. “And this”, concludes Gera Nagelhout, “ties in with thinking seriously about how to reach our target groups.”
Interview: Karin Burhenne
Pieter Jelle Visser was appointed professor at Maastricht University in 2022. He is engaged in research on Alzheimer's disease: the underlying causes and the possibilities for therapy. Visser has always been intrigued by the brain. Researching Alzheimer's fascinates him, not least because much can...
Three research consortia recently received 3.1 million euros from the Dutch Research Council (NWO) and the Dutch Arthritis Society (ReumaNederland) for research into the early detection of osteoarthritis. Two of these three are Maastricht based projects.