OKLAHOMA CITY – An oncologist and a mobile health researcher at Stephenson Cancer Center at OU Medicine are creating an app that will monitor the well-being of patients with cancer during the time of COVID-19.
The National Cancer Institute funded a grant for the rapid creation of the app and a study on its effectiveness. Stephenson Cancer Center plans to enroll 500 patients who are receiving chemotherapy for their cancer. During the study, which will last six months to a year, the app will prompt patients to answer daily questions that assess their health and their risk for having newly contracted COVID-19.
“Cancer patients receiving chemotherapy have reduced infection-fighting capabilities and, if they contract COVID-19, they are at higher risk of developing severe and life-threatening complications,” said Katherine Moxley, M.D., a gynecologic oncologist at Stephenson and co-principal investigator for the study. “We are trying to create a mechanism for early identification of coronavirus symptoms and worsening disease.”
The app is being created at the Oklahoma Tobacco Resource Center (OTRC), a program of Stephenson Cancer Center. The OTRC’s Mobile Health Shared Resource creates innovative apps designed to improve health and well-being. Michael Businelle, Ph.D., co-director of the OTRC and co-principal investigator for the study, said the new app will use “decision logic” in its interaction with patients. Based on patients’ answers to several questions, such as whether they have a cough or fever, the algorithm will determine if their health is at risk and automatically link them to services and resources.
Every morning, a patient’s smartphone will buzz or ring to start the questions. If the app determines the patient may be at risk of having COVID-19, he or she will be referred for immediate testing. Follow-up questions will help to determine whether the patient needs symptom management at home, outpatient medical assessment or inpatient evaluation with aggressive symptom management. The app will also send an encrypted email to Stephenson Cancer Center nursing staff, who can help when the patient needs information or medical support. In addition, patients can use the app at any other time of the day or night to contact a healthcare professional to report symptoms or concerns.
“Symptom Trackerä is basically a symptom management app, and we see this study as a prelude to future management of cancer patients in general,” Businelle said. “Instead of patients having to drive a long distance for an exam or follow-up, they can answer questions on the app and, if needed, do a telemedicine visit. The next level of care would be to come in to see their doctor.”
Cancer care at Stephenson has not slowed much during the COVID-19 pandemic, Moxley said. Patients must continue to receive cancer treatment despite risks introduced by the virus, she said, and Stephenson strives to provide a safe environment, which includes adequate screening and testing for COVID-19.
“I think the real-time symptom tracking enabled by this app will offer peace of mind to both patients and their oncologists,” Moxley said. “My patients and their family members are extremely anxious about their overall health and exposure risk right now. This app will give them a 24-hour lifeline that is applicable not only during the COVID-19 pandemic but also, in the future, to monitor and report significant side effects of chemotherapy. This is a valuable safety tool, especially for patients who live in rural Oklahoma and can’t easily travel to Stephenson Cancer Center or OU Medical Center for evaluation.”
Stephenson Cancer Center is collaborating with two other cancer centers for the study, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Norris Cotton Cancer Center in New Hampshire and Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center in New Jersey. All three are National Cancer Institute-Designated Cancer Centers. In addition to the National Cancer Institute’s funding of this study, the Stephenson’s Mobile Health Shared Resource is supported by the Oklahoma Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust.
Stephenson Cancer Center provides intravenous chemotherapy to approximately 4,000 patients each year. The study will begin enrolling patients in about a month. Patients receiving chemotherapy at Stephenson can contact their physician about joining the study.