Battle against cancer needs help from app developers

In case you haven't heard, the United States is facing a looming crisis in how our healthcare system treats cancer. With baby boomers entering their "tumor-prone" years, the delivery of cancer care in this country is about to be tested in ways that it hasn't in the past. We all know that the risk of cancer increases with age. However, as the baby boom generation of Americans gets older, new diagnosed cases of cancer are predicted to increase from 1.6 million per year currently to 2.3 million annually by 2030--a 45 percent jump.  

According to a new report from the Institute of Medicine, the U.S. healthcare system is not equipped to deal with the expected surge in cancer patients. The problem, though, is not just a potential shortage of oncologists to care for them. Despite the fact that researchers are developing innovative new therapies to treat cancer, the report revealed that decisions about cancer care "are often not sufficiently evidence-based" and patients do not understand their choices and what they can expect.

As a result, cancer patients can't be passive, argues Patricia Ganz, M.D., a UCLA oncologist and chair of the report's committee. The panel's top recommendation is to find ways to help patients make more informed decisions with easy-to-understand information on the advantages, disadvantages, and costs of various cancer treatments. Engaged patients with a system that supports patients in "making informed medical decisions consistent with their needs, values, and preferences in consultation with their clinicians," is the goal, states the report.

In theory, this is an area where mobile apps could help educate and inform cancer patients in need of scientifically-based answers to their pressing questions. However, earlier this year, a study published in the Journal of Cancer Education looked at smartphone apps as a source of cancer information. The study found a "lack of cancer-related applications with scientifically backed data," concluding that there is a "need to improve the accountability and reliability of cancer-related smartphone applications and encourage participation by health-care agencies to ensure patient safety."

Among the 77 apps in the study identified on the Apple iTunes store, only a little more than half of the apps provided scientifically validated data, while a mere 79 percent of the apps uploaded by healthcare agencies were found to be backed by scientific data. Consequently, the authors noted a "paucity of medical accuracy and relevance of a majority of apps directed at general users," and concluded that the "difference in scientific validity between the apps aimed at general population versus health-care professionals was statistically significant."

These findings and those from the Institute of Medicine report do not bode well for patients diagnosed with cancer who are weighing their options, looking for information, and having a hard time keeping up with the latest research on complex new treatments. Yet, it's not just a matter of knowing the latest cancer treatments. Ultimately, it's deciding if they are well suited to the needs of individual patients. 

Though the medical community may know, more than ever, the best ways of battling different types of cancer, the challenge is imparting that knowledge to patients and the public. That is where apps could be able to help. Developers have their work cut out for them. - Greg (@Slabodkin)