Cancer Apps That Track Side Effects May Help You Live Longer

Health Writer

These days there are apps for everything. So why should cancer treatment be any different? It’s not surprising that there’s smartphone technology that prompts patients to rate the severity of their side effects and shares the info with their doctors.

What is surprising is that early research shows patients who track their symptoms through mobile apps have better outcomes and live longer than those who do not. Why is this? How is this technology helping people survive?

Patients who communicated their side effects through the technology lived an average of 5 months longer than those who did not.

Michael Scott Sabel, M.D. and professor of surgical oncology at the University of Michigan, has worked to create several of these symptom-tracking apps. One, called the Breast Cancer Ally, has a “toxicity tracker” feature that prompts patients to rate their side effects. Based on their answers, the program provides suggestions on how to manage the problem, or, if the reactions are severe or the patient has already tried the suggestions, they are instructed to contact their medical provider.

“The goal,” Dr. Sabel said in a phone call with HealthCentral, “is to intervene early and to keep these patients out of the emergency room.” And many medical providers are working toward this same goal.

In North Carolina, Dr. Ethan Basch, a medical oncologist and professor at UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer in Chapel Hill, conducted a study in which patients at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center reported the severity of their symptoms in a smartphone app. At the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meeting he shared his findings. Patients who communicated their side effects through the technology lived an average of 5 months longer than those who did not.

Basch suggests three possible reasons for why this was the case.

  1. Daily reporting of symptoms made it more likely doctors would intervene before complications became serious.
  2. When the symptoms were addressed, patients were able to maintain a greater level of function, and that functioning correlates to survival.
  3. When side effects were managed, patients were able to receive treatments for longer.

So, information on side effects is valuable, but what if the patients didn’t even need to report it? What if data was collected passively, without any effort on the patient’s behalf?

Carissa Low, Ph.D. and assistant professor of medicine and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, also authored a small study where patients rated their symptoms in a smartphone app. However, this study went a step further and, with the help of a Fitbit, Dr. Low’s team passively collected data on patient’s behavior patterns to see if there was any correlation between behavior and symptom severity.

The researchers collected data on the number of texts and calls the patient made and received, their location, and the amount they walked. When the study was over, they compared the information they collected passively with patient reports to look for patterns.

“Part of our hypothesis,” Dr. Low said in a phone interview with HealthCentral, “is that there might be changes in behavior that are detectable even before the patient is aware that they’re having more fatigue. So, it might be like an early warning system.”

And how did it work? Was Dr. Low and her team able to predict when patients were struggling as well as patients were able to report it themselves?

“We found our model,” Dr. Low said, “is 88 percent accurate in telling whether it was a high symptom burden day or a low symptom burden day just based on the passive data alone.”

The model that predicted the severity of the patient’s symptoms based on the passively collected information was nearly as accurate as the patient reports. Does this mean that in the near future medical centers will collect data from their patients to manage their symptoms and their care?

Time will tell, but early reports are promising.

Dr. Sabel agrees that collecting information through devices like apps and Fitbits has a great deal of potential.

“There’s a tremendous opportunity,” Dr. Sabel said, “to use wearable technology to manage complex illnesses and their care – not only cancer, but also weight loss, blood pressure, diabetes and maybe even addiction.”

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