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A tablet may help ease the way with cancer

May 30, 2012|By Michelle Maltais | This post has been updated. See the note below for details.
  • The tablet app allows a personal portal over seemingly impersonal technology.
The tablet app allows a personal portal over seemingly impersonal technology. (City of Hope )

After your doctor says the word "cancer," muting all other sound from your ears, the best medicine to help in that moment might just be a tablet -- computer, that is. Technology, it seems, isn't all brain; it can also have heart.

"There's something about the distance that a machine gives you that's different from a person and different from paper," said Matt Loscalzo, co-creator of the SupportScreen. "People will give information to machines that [is] deeply personal."

SupportScreen is a Web-based app designed to address in real time the specific needs of patients dealing with a cancer diagnosis. Within about 15 minutes, patients go through the questionnaire at their own pace.

[Updated, 1:42 p.m. May 31: Based on the responses, hospital officials learn about the issues they need to build programs around. Fatigue, for instance, is a common complaint from participating patients, said Loscalzo, who is administrative director of the Sheri & Les Biller Patient and Family Resource Center at City of Hope. Thus, City of Hope was able to develop a program that included yoga classes to help address this challenge, he said.]

"The big thing that's really blowing us out of the water is the enhanced communication between medical professionals," he said. The app is able to connect them in ways time doesn't permit in the real world.

The app experience, from the types of information and services to the timing of interacting with SupportScreen, is customized to address issues related to different cancers.

While someone with another type of cancer could use SupportScreen at a second medical appointment, for example, a breast cancer patient, for example, would most likely be given the app on the first surgical visit, Loscalzo said, because there often isn't a second visit before surgery.

The app, in use at City of Hope in Duarte, offers patients a portal to get the important information and access to services they'll need as well as offers them a way to communicate with their doctors. It connects 37 doctors and addresses most common cancers.

Despite the idea of talking to technology about your cancer seeming impersonal, the app is humanized some with photographs of the doctors connected to it and lets the patient identify what they want to discuss -- and whether they want to do it in person or just want written information.

As anyone on the receiving end of the C-word can attest, hearing or even just fearing cancer can elicit unusual reactions. My mom, for instance, told a relative stranger of her fears about a lump just before her cancer diagnosis 30 years ago but said nothing to her closest family.

Because exposing vulnerabilities to other people can be very difficult, especially for those who feel out of control having received a cancer diagnosis, Loscalzo said, "that little bit of distance gives them safety."

Although using such an app from the security of their own personal cocoon might seem ideal, Loscalzo said his team has found that "they just won't do it from home."

The interface is easy to comprehend, written at a third-grade reading level in big letters. It touches on issues of pain, anxiety, homelessness, mental illness and stressors such as finances. If there's an indication of suicidal thoughts, the medical professionals on the receiving end of the information can act immediately to offer the patient support and help.

In terms of the hardware, at City of Hope, they have tried different tablets, but they like Asus best, he said. The app took a couple of years to develop and costs institutions $35,000 to license, Loscalzo said.

The next demographic he'd like to focus on is children with cancer, and he is talking to a few different companies to develop a pediatric version of SupportScreen. Children present a different set of communication challenges from adults.

"If you are 5 years old or 6 years old, you can have a stomachache because of the medications or because Mommy and Daddy are fighting," Loscalzo said. Children often need to be drawn out to decipher the complexity of their challenges beyond the simplicity of their expressions.

An app for children has to be animated, text-free (since these patients may not yet be able to read), interactive and have music while being scientifically driven. Although he said there have been conversations with Disney, Apple and Microsoft, no commitment has yet been made for the $1 million it'd take to create the app.

"We do see this level of technology as the connective tissue of the healthcare system," Loscalzo said.

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