Willem van Meurs helps medical practitioners make better decisions, particularly in life-or-death situations. Since the early nineties, the inventor, author and physiologic modeller has played a critical role in developing full-body patient simulators adopted for medical training in the fields of anesthesiology and pediatrics. As an electrical engineer, Van Meurs draws many parallels between machines and the basic vital functions of the human body, using these insights to replicate physiological processes.
“I have tremendous respect for acute care physicians making crucial decisions about interventions on patients in complex conditions in a few minutes,” Van Meurs says. “So I try to build tools on which doctors can train without anyone dying or getting hurt when they make a mistake.”
Born into a medical family, Van Meurs studied Electrical Engineering at Eindhoven University of Technology before completing his PhD in Control Theory at Paul Sabatier University in Toulouse. In 1992, he joined the University of Florida —first as a Postdoctoral Researcher and then as Assistant Professor of Anesthesiology— where he and his colleagues developed the Human Patient Simulator. This resulted in the establishment of Medical Education Technologies, Inc. (acquired by CAE Healthcare, Inc. in 2011) with Van Meurs serving as Director of Physiologic Model Development. At the same time, he worked as an Invited Associate Professor of Applied Mathematics and as a Biomedical Engineering Researcher at the University of Porto in Portugal.
“There were enough parallels to learn from the fairly explicit design methods I could find in combat helicopter simulator design and apply those to medical simulator design.”
Finding inspiration in the unexpected
In 2016, Van Meurs joined the University of Twente’s newly formed Cardio-Respiratory Physiology Group as a Senior Researcher and currently serves as a Design United Research Fellow. He also assists industrial design researchers at Eindhoven University of Technology with several projects involving modeling and simulation of chest compression and cyanosis in neonates. Furthermore, Van Meurs hopes to re-establish working relationships with leading neonatologists at the Maxima Medical Centre in Veldhoven.
Van Meurs’ experience with modeling and simulation of human physiology led him down a path of innovation in the medical field. Having no formal training in medicine or design, he had to look elsewhere to determine how best to approach his work, citing a book on combat helicopter simulator design as one source of inspiration.
“If you think about it, the combat helicopter pilot is obviously in a stressful situation,” Van Meurs explains. “And cognitive, psychomotor, and team working skills come into play in handling the helicopter. A similar combination of skills is required of the acute care physician. So from that point of view, there were enough parallels to learn from the fairly explicit design methods I could find in combat helicopter simulator design and apply those to medical simulator design.”
Room for improvement
With over 7,000 of his simulators sold worldwide, Van Meurs insists that there is still much work to be done in making patient simulators as lifelike and medical simulation environments as effective as possible. Moreover, he recognises the need to address the issue of complexity in acute care situations, specifically in regard to processing and communicating general knowledge and patient-specific information. “The challenge is to get to a level of explanatory depth that allows for accurate diagnosis and effective clinical decision making in limited available time.”
Personal profile of Willem van Meurs
Research fellow 2017
Designing neonatal patient simulators for medical emergency training