Doctor creates an online breast cancer ‘school’ to educate patients

His first thought was to write a book. But then John P. Williams, M.D., quickly gave up on that old-school idea and instead went to work creating a website to help educate breast cancer patients.

Williams, a breast cancer surgeon, built the Breast Cancer School for Patients on the idea that patients will make better treatment decisions when they are taught to be an "expert" in their own breast cancer care.

The 52-year-old Williams spent three years putting together the website. “The big take away is educate yourself and learn what you need to know,” he said, in an interview with FierceHealthcare.

Williams wrote the content for the site and produced over 80 videos that provide four- to five-minute lessons on important breast cancer topics from surgery and chemotherapy to radiation and genetics.

His biggest challenge? Overcoming his fear of the camera in order to be comfortable appearing in those videos, says Williams, who is medical director of the Novant Health UVA Breast Center, based in Haymarket, Virginia.

John P. Williams
John P. Williams, M.D.
(Breast Cancer School for Patients)

Krista Miller, a patient of Williams, said he and his staff were there to address her many questions and concerns as she went through the process of treating her breast cancer. They often provided her information the old-fashioned way—with paper handouts. She said she wishes the website had been available, as it walks patients through the various what-if scenarios.

“When you are diagnosed, you kind of shut down,” Miller said. While the website doesn’t replace a doctor, it can help patients get answers to their questions.

“You know doctors put this together, so there’s a comfort zone there,” she said.

Williams said he thinks the website provides a more powerful format than a book. With each topic, patients find written content, a video where the doctor explains the issue in patient-friendly terms, questions patients can ask their own physicians and links to other references.

“Breast cancer is complicated. It affects 250,000 women in the United States each year,” he said about the need for the website.

“It’s not to replace a physician,” Williams said, but he hopes the website can help put patients in the driver’s seat to make good choices about their care.

When it comes to treating breast cancer, patients do have a lot of choices, he said. Should they undergo chemotherapy? What about radiation? What are the advantages of a lumpectomy and mastectomy?

Patients can learn as little or as much about a particular topic as they want, he added.

Williams launched the website back in March. His analytics tell him people are visiting the site and spending time watching the videos, which are also posted on YouTube.

He hopes other doctors will replicate his idea, building “schools” to teach patients about topics from prostate cancer to ALS.

And he’s not done building his own school. He intends to keep adding content. For instance, if there’s a new study on treating breast cancer, Williams said he can put together an analysis and keep patients up to date.