Why a Dutch cardiologist calls Adelaide’s health research hub home


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By Belinda Willis

During the first week Dr Johan Verjans arrived in Adelaide to start a new job as a cardiologist he picked up the phone to search for more work opportunities.

“I had noticed one of the best computer vision groups in the world is actually based in Adelaide,” the cardiologist says.

He rang its chief to talk through opportunities in the health space and found the group receptive to his ideas – so receptive that he has now been named its deputy director Medical Machine Learning.

“Research is exploding in the artificial intelligence space, in Adelaide we have a clear advantage, with leading groups,” Dr Verjans says.

Dr Verjans believes the new job at the Australian Institute of Machine Learning complements his existing work list. This includes being a member of the heart research team at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI) and a practising cardiologist at the Royal Adelaide Hospital.

The latest task is about building a bridge between clinicians and engineers in a bid to make groundbreaking discoveries to improve health. Dr Verjans believes this interest in using artificial intelligence to advance health care could have worldwide ramifications.

Cardiologist Dr Johan Verjans is also deputy director of the Australian Institute of Machine Learning, and is on the heart research team at SAHMRI. Photo by JKTP.

“I think my best achievement will be in staying optimistic and working hard to facilitate this for the whole research family,” he says with a laugh.

It has already been a busy morning when the Dutch doctor answers the phone to talk about his move to Adelaide. He has already met with a potential project collaborator for the Australian Institute of Machine Learning and held a clinic for heart patients in the morning.

Dr Verjans says the hospital’s cardiac department has a wealth of information that can be fed into projects where machine learning can then improve the care for heart patients.

He is already involved in one project to use existing data from ECG (electrocardiogram), biomarkers and artificial intelligence to see if computers can help give better feedback in deciding when a patient can be safely sent home.

The talented cardiologist says Adelaide has a lot to offer in the health research field and that he and his wife, Yvette van Eenennaam chose to move from The Netherlands for both job opportunities and the state’s lifestyle.

Yvette has also won a key role in promoting health research in the city after she was appointed as the first general manager of Adelaide BioMed City after it was launched last year.

BioMed City is a partnership between SAHMRI with its more than 600 medical researchers, the Royal Adelaide Hospital and the state’s three universities.

“It’s hard to find that whole package like it is in Adelaide in other places, with liveability, ambition and world-class research,” Dr Verjans says.

The Australian Institute of Machine Learning is one of six research units at Adelaide University and Dr Verjans is among more than 100 researchers involved.

It’s a highly specialised field, but in simple terms, machine learning is a form of artificial intelligence that enables computers and machines to autonomously learn how to do complex tasks without being overtly programmed.

Computers are fed examples of data and information so they can look for patterns and help make better future decisions.

Yvette Eenennaam and Johan Verjans chose to pursue their medical careers in Adelaide over other leading health research cities.

Adelaide’s research unit is already recognised as a frontrunner in defence, creating algorithms for driverless cars, robotics and has helped push a medical device from SA-based LBT technologies to FDA approval.

“I’m thinking it will be a job growth area in Adelaide,” Dr Verjans says. “We’re really looking for solutions and at the moment we are only scratching the surface.”

Having Dr Verjans’ input is a coup for the state. His varied career also includes being chairman of the Dutch medical students and being a member of the federal board of the Royal Dutch Medical Doctors Federation.

A few of his Dutch students have actually followed him to Adelaide to pursue new opportunities “one worked with me as a student in Utrecht and now is here in Adelaide working”, he says.

Before he left for Australia Johan was also Chairman of [email protected], representing Dutch Early and Mid-career Cardiovascular Researchers on behalf of the Netherlands Heart Institute and Dutch Heart Foundation.

Both Dr Verjans and Yvette believe they have made a sound decision moving to Adelaide in 2017 with their two daughters aged seven and five.

“There’s so much more potential in this city and it’s relatively unknown what the city has to offer,” he says.

“Some people choose cities and jobs for wrong reasons, when I had job offers in Amsterdam and Sydney, we chose the liveable city.”

Dr Johan Verjans is Brand South Australia’s latest I Choose SA ambassador.

Industry in focus: Health

Throughout the month of April, the state’s health industry will be explored as part of I Choose SA.

South Australia’s health sector is among the best in the world, renowned for developing new and advanced technologies and research outcomes. Our health industry infrastructure is world-class, providing new pathways and job opportunities, as well as a growing potential for health tourism.

Read more health stories here.

Visit I Choose SA to meet the people building business and industry in SA, and to find out how your choices make a difference to our state.

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