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How an app is improving breast cancer care

breast cancer app

Jacqueline Tonks enjoys using technology. At age 78, she’s learned from her grandchildren and children, and is a frequent user of Facebook, Skype and texting. So when she heard about a mobile app that could help her manage her breast cancer treatment, she downloaded it.

“The nice thing about this app is that when I turn on my iPhone or iPad, the app appears and reminds me of things to do today. I really like the reminders of what exercises I’m supposed to do, in what order, and how many. It keeps me on track,” Tonks says.

breast cancer appTechnology such as mobile apps, wearable devices, video-on-demand and social media are changing the face of cancer care, helping deliver customized information, better tracking and reporting, and more ways for patients to actively participate in their care.

Tonks downloaded a new app called Breast Cancer Ally, which was developed by a team of breast cancer specialists and behavioral scientists at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“Mobile technologies will increasingly play a major role in cancer care. It’s a unique and outstanding platform to enhance patient-physician communication,” says Michael Sabel, M.D., division chief and associate professor of surgical oncology at the University of Michigan. Sabel was instrumental in developing Breast Cancer Ally.

One aspect of the breast cancer app is its just-in-time approach to feeding information. Instead of being overloaded with pamphlets, brochures and handouts, patients are regularly alerted to information that directly impacts their immediate care. So if you finished surgery on the axillary lymph nodes under the arm, the app would serve up information about arm exercises designed to improve mobility.

Personalized medicine in a whole new way

“Technology can help us help patients focus on the right information, navigate their treatment, address symptoms and side effects, and dialog with their care teams,” says Larry An, M.D., director of the University of Michigan Center for Health Communications Research. The center worked with Sabel to develop Breast Cancer Ally.

breast cancer app“Through technology, we’re developing tools to help patients evaluate their options to make better-informed treatment decisions. We’re helping doctors convey and patients absorb complex information. We’re empowering patients to monitor and address symptoms and side effects. And we’re encouraging people to take life-saving steps to prevent cancer, like quitting smoking,” An says.

Another tool that An’s team worked on creates custom video summaries for patients following their doctor appointments. Doctors record 2-3-minute videos immediately following a patient’s appointment. The video contains details such as major findings, recommendations for treatment and next steps that were discussed that day. Patients receive an email that they can access the video on a secure website. They can forward the link to family and friends if they want to share the information, allowing loved ones to hear the discussion firsthand from the doctor.

“When it was time for the next change in treatment, several patients asked for an updated video visit summary because the first summary was so informative,” says John Krauss, M.D., medical oncology director at the U-M multidisciplinary colorectal cancer clinic. Krauss was part of the initial pilot effort. The project has now expanded to the pancreatic cancer clinic as well.

Researchers hope technology like this will help patients better understand their doctor’s recommendations and concerns.

“Many of our cancer projects are rooted in a word patients and families use all the time to describe their experience: overwhelming,” An says. “On top of the anxiety that comes with every cancer diagnosis, patients are also confronted with an ocean of information, much of it in a language they don’t speak. It’s hard to make informed decisions or ask meaningful questions when you’re drowning in facts and figures.”

It’s important to note that technology should never replace face-to-face care. In some cases, an app may reduce the need to check in, but in other cases it may prompt a patient to follow-up on significant side effects or concerns.

“Most health care app designers are asking how a smartphone can replace a doctor. This is a reasonable approach for banking or retail, but is the wrong approach for medicine,” Sabel says.

Instead, Sabel says, it needs to be about how a smartphone can enhance the patient-doctor relationship.

“It’s about giving patients tools to work with their physicians to be more knowledgeable about their specific cancer, improve outcomes, recover faster, identify potential problems earlier, or detect new cancers or recurrences,” he says.

Take the next step:

  • Learn more from Larry An on technology and cancer care
  • Read more about the MiVideo project
  • Download Breast Cancer Ally (U-M breast cancer patients only) from the ) To download: go to the iTunes store. To create a new account – use Access Code “goblue”.

Cancer-center-informal-vertical-sig-150x150The University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center’s 1,000 doctors, nurses, care givers and researchers are united by one thought: to deliver the highest quality, compassionate care while working to conquer cancer through innovation and collaboration. The center is among the top-ranked national cancer programs, and #1 in Michigan according to U.S. News & World Report. Our multidisciplinary clinics offer one-stop access to teams of specialists for personalized treatment plans, part of the ideal patient care experience. Patients also benefit through access to promising new cancer therapies.