Thursday, April 2, 2015

Innovative New App For Cancer Patients Provides Glimpse Into the Future of Patient-Centric Medicine

When I was enduring chemotherapy for my stage IV non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, one of the greatest difficulties for me was dealing with the long spans between doctor visits. When you're fighting cancer, you can often feel lost in space. Like you've fallen into a Black Hole. At times I felt a million miles away from those who were trying to help me. 

It didn't help that my body reacted so badly to the cocktail of drugs I was taking. I had all kinds of side effects and could barely keep food down. I could only get out of bed on the good days. I knew the treatment was not going to be a picnic, but in the days following my first infusion I grew increasingly concerned that I did not have enough information about the meds, the pain, the low blood counts, fever, nausea, vomiting, etc.

And I know I'm not alone. As a patient advocate for the past 15 years, I've spoken with thousands of cancer patients who've lodged the same complaint. Virtually everyone who's had cancer knows that once you leave the hospital or doctor's office, the days when you have no direct line of communication with your physician and staff can be isolating and even frightening -- especially when you're dealing with a well-meaning but busy oncology office. 

But I've discovered a new patient-centric program that helps patients get the attention and service we need and deserve between treatments. I stumbled recently upon an innovative application designed specifically for cancer patients called iCancerHealthIt's a very cool and interactive platform that provides complementary modules that allow cancer patients to manage our situation even after we leave the hospital or doctor's office. It's all about meeting cancer patients' unmet needs, 24/7. And it helps the docs, too. 

Three-time cancer survivor Stacy Hobbs
A real-time mobile and web-based "app" that is free for all cancer patients and caregivers, iCancerHealth bridges the sometimes astronomically large gap between the clinic and the home. Stacy Hobbs (right), a registered nurse who spent five years in an oncology unit, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012 and is a three-time survivor. She was introduced to iCancerHealth when her oncologist invited her to review the app before the initial launch. 
She uses it every day. 

"I really love the app's pill box," she told me recently. "The reminders are great, especially for someone like me who has chemo brain. I also enjoy connecting with other survivors in the iCancerHealth community."

The app is the brainchild of Raj Agarwal, CEO of Medocity, the company behind iCancerHealth. A kind and intuitive man, Agarwal understands what cancer patients want, what we need, and what we lack. He gets it. "Living with cancer is hard enough," Agarwal said. "We're focused on improving the patient’s quality of care at home. Most healthcare providers just don't possess the tools, time and resources needed to transition care requirements to the patient’s home.”

Agarwal, who holds an MBA in Finance from NYU’s Stern School of Business and BS in Electrical Engineering, has spent the last 20 years in the healthcare industry. Part of that time was spent in the oncology and patient-care side, and part of it was spent on the pharmaceutical side. Agarwal is that rare bird: a smart businessman who is still deeply concerned about people who are suffering. He never lost touch with the hearts and minds of cancer patients during his many years working with pharma and oncology. He has in fact deepened his connection to us. 

Agarwal has a keen understanding that the future of cancer care will be patient-focused. There will be more personalized medicines and more specific, tailored treatments and care for individual patients. His new app is a glimpse into that future. It's something that Agarwal and his team have spent a lot of time perfecting. And it's still evolving to meet patients' needs.

Medocity CEO and iCancerHealth creator Raj Agarwal
Agarwal is adamant that it's what happens between doctor visits that really determines our health outcomes. It seems like a no-brainer, but this is not a concept that is widely understood or embraced. As someone who's spent the last 18 years preaching the gospel of "being your own best advocate," I can say with relative certainty that Agarwal's app will improve patient outcomes. And it certainly isn't anti-doctor. It actually makes the oncologist's job easier. 

"During the last two decades I've seen everyone focusing their efforts on physicians or hospitals," Agarwal said. "There's no support or care when the patient leaves the clinic. My idea was simple: 'Why don't we put patients at the center of care?' The patient is the one who is suffering, so you build it around that. Then you turn around the equation and it becomes more effective. That is the premise, which leads to the development of care for patients at home, which improves their outcomes."

The platform includes a Health Tracker, which monitors treatment progress, Medication Management to ensure compliance, My Diary, which includes a scrapbook of videos, images and voice entries, Social Community to exchange ideas and experiences, Education, with access to respected information resources, Nutrition to track daily meal and fluid intake, and more. Comprehensive reports can be emailed or printed for the next doctor visit. The lines of communication are far more open and immediate with iCancerHealth than with what patients are used to seeing. 

My hope is that this app, and others in the future, will eventually embrace supplements, herbs, and other natural products that can help a cancer patient fight his or her disease. This, too, is a significant part of the future of medicine and will be a part of every patient's arsenal in the near future. You're just going to have to trust me on this, folks. It is already happening. Patients are demanding it, and doctors are beginning to understand the obvious fact that it isn't just pharma-patented drugs that can heal us.

Another positive that the iCancerHealth app provides is that it avoids unnecessary costs in the system. "People who do not effectively manage symptoms end up in ER or they stop taking their meds because the side effects are not addressed or they forget," Agarwal said. "This program fills those gaps. You can detect early what is happening and allow for more proactive interaction. It can lead to less cost, it's good for patients and for the system, and as a country we can put more dollars into more productive care and research."

Some hospitals already allow patients to communicate with doctors and health care staffers, with programs such as MyChart at my cancer hospital, UCSD Moores Cancer Center. But iCancerHealth
takes this to a more efficient and much deeper level. Agarwal sees this model only getting more refined to the point where this type of virtual care will bring everything together in one platform and allow intelligence to naturally flow to one model from another model.

For example, when you seek information on nausea, that information goes to the nutrition side, which will include a recipe' related to nausea to help you know what you can and should eat. You also are connected to the social side where you can see blogs about nausea. "There will be even more customization as we progress along our development path," Agarwal pledged, "as we fine-tune the experience for patients."

Agarwal of course can't discuss in too much detail just how many hospitals are embracing the concept. But he did say the company is in discussions with many of the nation's top cancer clinics. I hope my hospital, which is indeed a fine hospital, recognizes the value of iCancerHealth. And above all else, Aragwal constantly seeks feedback from cancer patients. 

"We are speaking to patient advocacy groups, and to many organizations and cancer patients, to see how we can keep improving and just so we can receive more valuable information from the patient's perspective," Agarwal said. "The goal is to be a dynamic service, to constantly improve."

And cancer patients are embracing Agarwal's concept. JoAnn Smith, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2009 and had a mastectomy and endured chemo and radiation, was cancer-free for six years. But she is now dealing with a recurrence in the same area where the breast was removed. She just recently started using the iCancerHealth app.

"It's very helpful keeping things straight with your meds, what you're eating, how your feeling, etc," Smith said. "While we are getting treated sometimes we don't realize if we have taken our meds, eaten, or even when are emotions are out of order. I have been using the app for about two weeks and find it very helpful."


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