In this digital age, patients with cancer and the clinicians who treat them have access to an overload of information regarding disease state and treatments. Efforts are now focusing not only on the development of novel therapies, but on mobile technology, such as phone apps, that offer vetted health care information, reminders, and side-effect trackers to patients and practitioners.

A Customized Mobile Experience

A new first-of-its-kind mobile app called Breast Cancer Ally is available exclusively for University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center patients.1

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The free download creates a customized mobile experience based on the patient’s treatment plan. And this is just the beginning. Developers at the University of Michigan are working to expand the concept to other disease types and other institutions. Some are customized to specific institutions or even genetic makeup.

“Right now we are only using the app with University of Michigan patients because the app is very institution-specific, and I think this is extremely important and what differentiates our efforts from previous efforts. The treatment recommendations and advice are in line with what the UM oncologists are discussing with the patients, so they aren’t receiving conflicting information, as can happen when one uses a generic app or website for information,” said Michael Sabel, MD, a breast cancer surgeon who led the app’s development.

“We are in the process of customizing the app for other institutions, so that in the next 2 to 3 years many cancer centers and oncology practices could have an institution-specific app that they can use with their patients to improve education and outcomes.”

To create the app, Dr. Sabel and his team went to each specialist involved in breast cancer care and asked what they would want to remind the patient or encourage the patient to do following their visit. They asked the patients what they needed after their primary treatment.

For each stage of treatment (including diagnosis, surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation) the team identified areas where mobile technology could assist and potentially improve outcomes.

For example, patients having surgery to remove axillary lymph nodes in their underarm may have difficulty with shoulder movement afterward.

This can be avoided by performing daily shoulder exercises. Currently, patients receive a handout describing the exercises. With the mobile app, patients get a daily reminder as well as instructions. The app can also track their progress.

“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,” said Jacqueline Tonks, a patient being treated for breast cancer. “I really like the reminders of what exercises I’m supposed to do, in what order, and how many. It keeps me on track.”1

Another tool is the toxicity tracker, which helps patients manage the side effects of chemotherapy. The app asks several questions each day about potential side effects and delivers specific information based on the patient’s answers. If the patient reports severe or worsening side effects, the app advises when to call the doctor. The app continues to deliver notifications and reminders throughout treatment.

“This is just the first inning. Melanoma Ally will be out in February or March, and we are working on Prostate Cancer Ally and Colorectal Cancer Ally. The long-term goal is to have a suite of Cancer Ally apps across tumor types,” Dr. Sabel told Cancer Therapy Advisor.

“The reason for these tumor types and breast cancer in particular is two-fold. The first is the multidisciplinary nature of cancer treatment. Patients often get overloaded with information because treatment involves so many modalities. The app allows us to filter that information so that patients only get information specific to their case, and only when they need it.”

He said the second reason is that there are multiple choices in treatment in breast cancer. Subsequently, patients often get information that isn’t relevant to them. Websites and pamphlets usually contain a considerable amount of information, creating the need for patients to decipher what is pertinent to their case.

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The tools and interactive components in the app are specific and based on data entered by the patient. For example, patients with drains after a mastectomy get information about managing the drain, and a tool to help them do so. Patients who don’t need a drain, such as after a lumpectomy, never see that information. The app also has decision-making aids.