It’s the beginning of the end of cancer deaths. The team is losing heavily, the technical team just realized the best player has been on the sideline. He just got subbed on and he’s dealing deadly blows to the opposition. Welcome, Digital Health!
Cancer has become a monster to most people, wrecking untold havoc in the world as knowledge of its menace has led to fear of the monster. The fear, however is justified. Cancer is the second leading cause of death globally, claiming about 8.8 million lives in 2015 alone (1 out of every 6 deaths). This number continues to rise especially because of a lack of adequate and effective curative services (1).
Cancer arises from transformation of normal cells into tumor cells in a multistage process that generally progresses from a pre-cancerous lesion to a malignant tumor. It affects almost all parts of the human body since it occurs in the fundamental unit of the body; the cell.
Digitization has made its way into health care, disrupting the status quo. It’s bridging the critical communication gap between providers and consumers while simultaneously improving care and reducing cost. Electronic health records are making it easier to collect, aggregate, compare and make informed medical decision. Telemedicine is making healthcare accessible in places that health facilities are non-existent and mhealth is personalizing healthcare for consumers. Digital health technology is making steady progress towards its triple aim; improving health, improving care experience and reducing cost of care.
How has the fight against cancer fared in the wake of digital health technology?
Research and data collection
Just like in any fight, knowledge of what one is up against is always an advantage. Research and data collection about cancer in the pre-digital times have been hampered by distance, time in between occurrence and accurate matching of same cancer type. However, the use of registries is eroding this customary collection of information about cancer which depended only on patient demographics and health history. Digital technologies now incorporate raw data from pathology, genomics, imaging studies, patient reported symptoms and many more into these registries. The most valuable benefit of registries as regards to the fight against cancer is the fact that rare types of cancer can be pooled and analysed, which will then in turn lead to excellent decision making; an achievement that was impossible decades ago.
Today, digitization is massively bridging the gap between data and researchers with websites and smart phone applications being used to conduct research on cancer. ResearchKit by Apple turns the iPhone into a tool for medical research, helping researchers gather necessary data from users of the apps. It even enables study participants to review an interactive informed consent process, submit reactions and decide how their health information is shared with researchers.
Data collection has been made handy for decision making by both researchers and patients. Ask Dory! by Applied Informatics LLC is an online platform that enables people search for cancer clinical trials. It makes use of data from the United States government’s clinical trials database which makes it less costly and safer. Another application, Cancer App by mhealth Solutions collects information from different sources to provide individuals with strategies for reducing their risk of developing cancer.
Prevention and diagnosis
Prevention and early diagnosis is principal in the hearts of health care professionals, governments and the World Health Organisation. WHO estimated $1.16 trillion total annual economic cost of cancer in 2010 alone, therefore putting the devouring menace on red alert. Most middle and low income countries have patients who report for treatment when it is too late or whose cancer ailment have been misdiagnosed for another disease (1).
Thirty to fifty percent of cancer cases are preventable and 1 out of 3 cancer deaths are due to behavioural and dietary risks 1. Efforts towards prevention have been effective with the use of Wearables to measure physical activitiesand body mass. This can be interpreted by physicians for easy recommendations in lifestyle changes to avoid cancerous growths. Diagnoses are now much more accurate and faster due to digital tools like genomics which help early detection, ultimately saving lives. BioMark Diagnostics Inc. for instance has validated its new diagnostic test which can detect cancer at an early stage using a sophisticated LC-MS machine. The machine screens for high levels of the acetylated Amantadine (which would have been administered earlier). Acetylation is performed by SSAT, an enzyme proven to be present in elevated level in many cancers.
Mobile diagnostics are also available for early but mostly easy detection of cancer. Dr Now, a medical diagnostic and delivery mobile platform from Now Healthcare Group, is providing patients with a range of self-test ‘tumour marker’ kits to help diagnose ovarian cancer and even assess the severity of potential heart failure.
Perhaps the area of most advancement of digital health as it relates to the fight against cancer is in the treatment stage. Judith Morley, a cancer survivor shared how digital health helped her through her period of treatment. She testified that “by the time I was declared cancer-free seven years later, I was not only an avid user of digital health, I wouldn’t dream of giving it up”. You can read up how digital health helped her here
Usually, the period after diagnosis is a tornado of activities starting from meeting with the oncology team, undergoing exhausting tests, keeping appointments with technicians, visiting doctors and the emotional tussle of having to accept the diagnosis. As though the activities are not enough, the amount of medical information that those visits generate are enormous and overwhelming for the patients to retain and make sense of.
Digital health has now gotten cancer patients covered.After diagnosis and initial rounds of tests, consultations can be done online via Skype video without the patient having to leave their homes. Wearables and mobile health apps are now used to monitor patients’ information and interestingly, they transmit such information to the oncology team! Real time monitoring just placed healthcare on a whole different pedestal. Fitbit Flex raised the bar with trackers that track the physical activities of patients who cannot report symptoms by themselves due to various reasons.
Vanderbilt University Medical Center developed My Cancer Genome, an app that gives patients information about treatment options based on mutation of their genomes, drawing information from the National Cancer Institute in the US.
Digital health also helps patient retain, keep track and process the loads of information given to them by the oncology team by the use of apps. These apps have repositories of cancer-related terms and their definitions, help obtain information about specific cancers, and can record and save conversations with clinicians. The following are a list of other impressive apps helping cancer patients through their care regimen.
• Pocket cancer care guide : – this free app turns the phone into a handy Dictaphone so you can record answers from your doctors and nurses.
• Cancer.Net Mobile: it lets users save information about prescriptions, including photos of labels and bottles; a symptom tracker, guides to 120 types of cancer and sample questions to ask your physician.
• Cancer Therapy Advisor: It gives up-to-date information on everything that is happening with cancer therapy, with videos, charts, and other media.
• CareZone ; tracks what you’ve taken, to record treatment adherence. The calendar keeps track of appointments, has a folder for important contacts and an easy-to-use journal that should prove extremely helpful to both patient and doctor.
• PearlPoint Cancer Side-effects Helper: with practical tips, trusted nutritional advice, and heaps of support, the app aims to guide patients to strength, wellness, and side-effect recovery. The app also links to PearlPoint’s online archive where emotional, financial, and practical support can be found.
The social media is providing the needed emotional support and empathy cancer patients need to pull through by means of groups on Facebook, TweetChat groups on Twitter etc that focus on specific types of cancer. The social media has an added advantage because it is not location bound like physical groups. Social media groups also do not face the challenge of getting cancer patients with similar diagnosis in the same location to form a well numbered mutual support group unlike in physical groups. NGOs have websites for raising funds and creating support for cancer patients.
Cancer patients are being engaged with activities to carry out besides trying to make sense of their health information. Interactive online tutoring in self-care/self-advocacy skills and ways to get questions answered quickly are benefits of the various online platforms available to patients.
Public enlightenment through digital means have immeasurable benefits, solutions can easily be replicated and perhaps the greatest thing about it is that research is ongoing and solutions are getting approval almost annually in the digital health sphere.
Digital health has strengthened the fight against cancer by reducing the time taken for diagnosis, saving time and energy wasted in bookings and consultations, helping patients and care givers keep track and retrieve health data more easily and so much more. With all of these progresses, maybe, just maybe, cancer at some point in this contest will be defeated and won’t be so dreaded anymore.
1. World Health Organisation. Cancer Fact Sheet.
2. The Digital health Corner. (2017). Five ways Digital Health can address cancer
3. Mesothelimia Center. (2014).Top Mobile Apps for Cancer Patients to Track Treatment and Medication (2014)
4. Cyber Med News (2016). Digital Health for Cancer Survivors: Seeking Solutions & Satisfaction.
5. Digital health.