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Cooper's MD Anderson center to use Apple Watch to track breast cancer patients' health, help them with treatment

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An Apple Watch will track patients' activity and how they cope with treatment.
An Apple Watch will track patients' activity and how they cope with treatment. - ()

The MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper in Camden and behavioral health technology company Polaris Health Directions are partnering on a pilot project in which breast cancer patients will use the Apple Watch to gather real-time patient health data with the goal of improving the outcome of their cancer treatment.

The Apple Watch will automatically track the patient’s physical activity and heart rate. And the app will keep tabs on how patients are coping with their treatment: are side effects an issue, are they sleeping okay, are they anxious or depressed? The patients will respond to short questions, called “glances,” with a tap of their watch.

If it appears the patient needs more support, the clinical team at MD Anderson at Cooper can proactively reach out instead of waiting for the patient to come in for a scheduled appointment that could be a couple of weeks down the road.

The nine-month pilot program expects to begin recruiting patients in August, and when the pilot is finished, plans are to seek a National Cancer Institute grant for a two-year clinical research study of this new Apple Watch breast cancer app. Each of the 30 breast cancer patients in the pilot will receive a free Apple Watch that will be theirs to keep.

Cori McMahon of MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper.
Cori McMahon of MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper. - ()

Cori McMahon, director of behavioral medicine, MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper, said that, as patient information flows in via the Apple Watch, “our goal is to respond as quickly as possible.”

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For example, “If the patient rates their depression or anxiety level very high, that would be concerning to us. It’s something we would respond to as quickly as possible with a phone call to find out how the patient is feeling and to see if this needs to be addressed right now.”

Tina Harralson, science director for Wayne, Pennsylvania-based Polaris Health Directions, said, “One of the things that we think is going to be really unique about our app is that it’s going to be interactive with the patient.”

Suppose the Apple Watch activity tracker notices the patient has been sedentary all day: “We can send a message that says, ‘Are you okay?’ We will have data every day and we’ll start seeing patterns; for example, depression can be correlated with energy, with nausea, with sleep patterns.”

Typically, cancer patients answer questions about how they’re coping with treatment when they visit the doctor. With the Apple Watch, this information can be used right away “and enable the doctor or the oncology team to change treatment plans,” Harralson said.

Mark Redlus of Polaris Health Directions.
Mark Redlus of Polaris Health Directions. - ()

Mark Redlus, Polaris senior vice president, labs & innovation, said: “This is an opportunity to have a device and a platform (go) with the patient outside of the hospital. We’re able to capture their data while they are at home or on the go.”

The Apple Watch app promises more opportunity for patients to engage in their own care.

“There is the opportunity for them to self-discover what is going on with them in their normal routines throughout the day. It develops a completely different profile for them and for us to assist them,” Redlus said. “Feelings of loneliness, depression — those things can really influence the outcomes of their treatment, and we’re talking about trying to really move the needle there.”

McMahon said staying in constant touch with the patient via the Apple Watch could alert the medical team to factors that keep patients from adhering to their treatment regimen. A patient may miss an appointment because “they are incredibly fatigued or experiencing depression. Maybe it’s a couple of days right after chemotherapy that they are feeling the lowest. If we can hear about this sooner, we can intervene sooner.”

The goal is to help keep the patient’s treatment regimen on track, “which in the long run is better for health outcomes and quality of life,” McMahon said.

Polaris and MD Anderson Cooper are announcing Tuesday that they’ve signed a memorandum of understanding to partner on the Apple Watch project. The next step is review and approval by the Cooper Institutional Review Board, and with the board’s support the partners would jointly publish project findings, at intervals to be determined.

Tina Harralson of Polaris Health Directions.
Tina Harralson of Polaris Health Directions. - ()

The project will use the Polaris “Polestar” behavioral health outcomes management platform, which Harralson said is already being used with Internet browsers and iPads to help improve overall outcomes for patients throughout the U.S. and, “through this breast cancer pilot, we hope to see even better patient outcomes with the addition of the Apple Watch,” Harralson said.

“The impact of the integration of behavioral health in cancer care is significant. A positive frame of mind can help a patient through all phases of diagnosis and treatment,” said Dr. Generosa Grana, director of the MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper and head of the division of hematology/medical oncology at Cooper University Hospital. “Patient engagement is a critical factor in successful treatment plans. We expect using the Apple Watch will help increase engagement and collect data that ultimately allows us to further refine treatment plans.”

Grana said Polaris and Cooper’s oncology team have been research partners for almost a decade, and have collaborated on six studies related to behavioral health with funding from the National Institutes of Health, including work on distress management during cancer treatment, and smoking cessation.

Grana said if the pilot results are promising, they will seek a National Cancer Institute research grant for a full-scale breast cancer project.

Redlus said if the pilot is successful, efforts will be made to bring the app to market as soon as possible.

“We have pretty high confidence that this is going to have an impact on patient connectivity,” Redlus said. “We are pretty good at Polaris at leveraging feedback rapidly into the design of our products, and we will do that here and really move it along.”

Since Apple launched the Apple Watch in April, it hasn’t been easy for consumers to get their hands on them, but the Polaris/Cooper joint venture won’t have to wait on line. Redlus said Polaris is a business partner of Apple, and the watches will be delivered this summer for the pilot, which is expected to start in August.

Founded in 1997, Polaris Health Directions is a behavioral health technology company focused on innovative integrated medical-behavioral health solutions and has been funded by more than $13 million in research grants from the National Institutes of Health in partnership with universities and hospital systems.

MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper is a partnership between Cooper University Healthcare and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

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