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'Equality is certainly not an assumption. National and international research, for example, indicates that students from a migration background are less likely to be selected to be specialists. There must also be a focus on diversity in patient care; if you find it hard to understand a patient it can be difficult to provide the right care. The aim of Amsterdam UMC’s diversity policy is equal opportunities for all students and good care for all. Whatever your background or gender, for example', says Jeanine Suurmond. She and Ilja Swets are the Faculty Diversity Officers (FDOs) for the Faculty of Medicine (Amsterdam UMC).

Photo Jeanine Suurmond
Jeanine Suurmond

Diversity and the Corona crisis

The Corona crisis has had a major impact on the work of the FDOs. Ilja: 'For example, I’m extremely busy organising emergency childcare for the children of our healthcare staff. A lot of colleagues have been assigned different tasks, which are now top priority. It’s amazing to see how flexible and resilient our organisation is. There’s a real sense of solidarity and focus. Within a day, colleagues who have never even met each other before are working together as part of a team which is performing at a high level from the outset. Inclusion is not an issue. Everyone works together.' Jeanine: 'We’re trying to carry on teaching online, so guest lecturers give lectures on the health of refugees or the homeless, for example, using Zoom. And a visit by medical students to Dokters van de Wereld (Doctors of the World) in Amsterdam also takes place using Zoom. It’s also interesting that colleagues from other organisations have rapidly made information on coronavirus more accessible by translating it into different languages and adapting the level of language to people with limited health knowledge.'

Photo Ilja Swets
Ilja Swets

Diversity as part of the curriculum

Although the coronavirus is shifting the focus for many people right now, one of the basic principles of Amsterdam UMC is to reduce the health differences between people living in Amsterdam and in the world as a whole. If this is to be achieved, focusing on diversity in health care is essential. Jeanine: 'That’s why we are integrating diversity into our teaching. For example, medical students follow practical training that focuses on dealing with language barriers. They learn when an interpreter should be brought in. We also look at patterns of disease in patients with different ethnic backgrounds. And students also learn how culture plays a role in diabetes. And, during the programme, students have to complete an assignment which requires them to think about their own prejudices when it comes to patients.' Amsterdam UMC has a lot to thank the city for, so it is keen to give something back in the education it provides. Jeanine: 'We have activities which are designed to make students more aware of the city in which they are studying. Students have visited the Bijlmer district of Amsterdam, for example, to give patients advice on health. That way, they give something back to society.' And, clearly, they also learn from the experience.

Equal opportunities for all students

There must be a focus on equality in education. Jeanine: 'We believe it’s important that students have equal opportunities.' After all, your background gives you an advantage or a disadvantage. Ilja: 'If both your parents here in the Netherlands are doctors, you’ll have a far more supportive network than if you’re the first person in your family to go to university. It’s clear that students with a different background sometimes find it hard to network.' Jeanine adds: 'Or they sometimes feel they have to over-perform or find it difficult to accept feedback.'

We believe it’s important to provide good care for everyone. That’s why we are integrating diversity into our teaching.

Facilities for students and staff

The building also has a number of facilities to support students and staff. Ilja: 'The hospital treats a wide range of patients, so the building is extremely open and accessible. And that applies to people with a disability too. We also have the Mental Health Service (Dienst Geestelijke Gezondheid) and a quiet centre in the building, where people can ask questions about religion. If you have a Muslim background, for example, and you want to know how, as a female healthcare worker, you can care for male patients, you can put your question to a Muslim counsellor. And the centre has prayer rooms too.'

Diversity produces better results

Both Ilja and Jeanine are personally committed to the issue of diversity. Ilja: 'I’ve been committed to increasing diversity throughout my working life. First in public broadcasting, to liven things up a bit. I firmly believe that diverse teams produce better results. They look at an issue from different perspectives and the members of the team discuss things more with each other than would be the case with like-minded people, which makes for a more carefully considered and ultimately a better result. It gives me a great deal of satisfaction to see someone who’s been out of the jobs market for a long time slowly settle into a team. It’s great for them and it enhances the team.'
When it comes to teaching staff, there’s still plenty of work to be done. Ilja: 'Currently, 70% of staff at Amsterdam UMC are female, 55% in middle management are female and 46% in senior management are female. These are good statistics but education is lagging behind. Only 28% of professors are women and only 24% of professors by special appointment are women. So, we now also have a female career development programme, for example, where female associate professors and professors can explore and develop their personal leadership, leadership skills and leadership style further.'

Diverse teams produce better results. They look at an issue from different perspectives and the members of the team discuss things more with each other than would be the case with like-minded people, which makes for a more carefully considered and ultimately a better result.

Vision for the future

Jeanine and Ilja know everything there is to know about what’s going on in the field on diversity. And there’s a lot going on, but there’s still plenty more to do. As for their ambitions for the future, Ilja says this: 'Our ambition for the future is that diversity and inclusion policy will be an integral part of everything we do. That is starting to happen. But, clearly, it’s not easy. Diaries are full and the workload is tough. So these kinds of additional activities tend to get overlooked.’ Jeanine: 'We’d also like to have more insights into the data that is specific to our faculty. We have data for the UvA as a whole, but if we had even better insights into academic success in relation to migration background, for example, ultimately we could give students even better support.' And that is essential if genuine equality in education and health care is to be achieved.

A diverse university makes more progress. And diversity comes from working together. Thats why we are committed to ensuring that everyone at the UvA can develop to the full and be themselves. Whatever their cultural background, gender, beliefs, sexual orientation or disability. Every faculty has a Faculty Diversity Officer who sets out the diversity policy, together with staff and students and the Chief Diversity Officer team. Every faculty does have a different identity. Over the next few weeks we will be publishing interviews with all of the Faculty Diversity Officers. This interview was with Ilja Swets and Jeanine Suurmond of the Faculty of Medicine (Amsterdam UMC).

Jeanine Suurmond, Assistant Professor
Has worked for the AUMC for: 17 years with a couple of short breaks
Lives in: Bilthoven
Hobbies: Gardening
What do you enjoy most about your job? The freedom and creativity.

Ilja Swets, Coordinator of Participation programme
Has worked for AUMC for: 3 years
Lives in: Amsterdam
Hobbies: Big fan of art cinemas (when they re-open after the Corona crisis)
What do you enjoy most about your job? The fact that, with a bit of extra effort, you can really help people who’ve been out of the jobs market for a long time.