Mobile health care or mHealth is a new trend that promises to change the very core of how we deal with health. It is giving us new ways to interact with health care providers and allowing us to take charge of our personal health. Fitness apps have become ubiquitous and some even function as social networks for people trying to get fit. There are also apps that link you to your health care professional. Many hospitals now offer their own apps, and some apps are made to track the symptoms of specific illnesses, sending them to your doctor for review.
One of the major milestones in medical research in terms of mHealth was the launch of Apple's ResearchKit in March 2015. ResearchKit turned the iPhone into a powerful tool for medical research. It is an open source software framework for building apps, designed for medical and health research, which helps doctors and scientists gather data more frequently and more accurately from participants using iPhone apps. ResearchKit also makes it easier to recruit participants for large-scale studies, accessing a broad cross-section of the population. Study participants can complete tasks or submit surveys using the apps, so researchers spend less time on paperwork and more time analysing data.
So, can mHealth apps cure cancer? This could well be a start. ResearchKit was launched with five medical research study apps, including Share the Journey, which aims to understand why some breast cancer survivors recover faster than others, why their symptoms vary over time and what can be done to improve symptoms. Share the Journey uses surveys and sensor data on iPhone to collect and track fatigue, mood and cognitive changes, sleep disturbances and reduction in exercise. Earlier this year, a melanoma (skin cancer) app, called the Mole Mapper, was released by Sage Bionetworks and Oregon Health & Science University. It is a personalised tool to help you map, measure and monitor the moles on your skin. Using a familiar Maps-like interface, you can measure the size of a mole using the camera and a common reference object like a coin. In the US, medical institutions and pharma giants like GlaxoSmithKline have already jumped on the bandwagon and are churning out apps to help in research.
So, would ResearchKit and mHealth apps make a difference and speed up research in oncology? Dr Shaji Kumar, haematologist and professor of medicine, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota, explains: “Mobile platforms are going to revolutionise the way we capture and interpret health related data. Ability to capture patient experiences realtime fundamentally changes the field of patient reported outcomes, and the ability to capture important variables without active patient intervention opens up vast opportunities to improve patient care. This is particularly true in oncology where therapies can often induce more symptoms than the disease itself. The one disadvantage I see is the possibility of increased patient burden from numerous approaches and this highlights the need to unify these platforms to limit the intrusion into patient life.”
Cancer research is all about clinical trials and patient recruitment, which is one of the main causes of delays in studies. Currently, researchers often have to pay patients to participate in clinical trials, which limit the cross-section of participants. And some studies end up relying on just a few dozen patients. Use of mHealth apps can improve sample size by opening up these trials and inviting millions of smartphone users to easily participate.
Another very frequent issue is of tracking and monitoring patients and trial participants between clinic visits. Collection of data can be more consistent and regular with the use of study apps. Already in the US, more than 1,00,000 people are using research study apps, which means scientists now have access to hundreds of thousands of data points they wouldn’t have had before.
But, what’s the scenario in India? Dr Lalit Kumar, professor of oncology, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, says: “I think use of mobile technology will be of great help in India and countries with limited resources, where a large proportion of population does not have access to health care. One of the major problems in cancer care in India and countries in Asia and Africa is that average time from first symptom to diagnosis is three months and from diagnosis to starting of treatment at a tertiary cancer care centre is another two to three months. This obviously is detrimental to the long-term outcome. If there is an app that can tell people what should be the next step after noticing breast lump, it may save time at least by 50 per cent.”
This is an exciting era for cancer research. Imagine the potential for a cancer cure and the number of lives that can be saved. It is amazing to think that a smartphone, which you use to check your mail, can be used to battle cancer.
Priya V. Menon is scientific media editor at TrialX/Applied Informatics Inc. She manages and hosts CureTalks, an international online radio talk show on cancer research and health care.