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There’s an App for That

May 20, 2019

This blog is the first of seven posts highlighting the achievements of this year’s ACCC Innovator Award Winners. Join us at the upcoming 36th ACCC National Oncology Conference, Oct. 30 – Nov. 1, 2019, in Orlando, Florida, where the 2019 Innovator Award recipients will present on their pioneering initiatives.

WellSpan Health is growing rapidly. The York, Pennsylvania healthcare system has expanded its three cancer centers into six during the past three years. Growing pains can be an inevitable by-product of such rapid growth. After evaluating the organization’s radiation oncology patient education materials at each of its cancer centers, Bryan M. Schmalhofer, MBA, RT(R)(T), a radiation therapist and manager of Radiation Oncology Operations at WellSpan Cancer Centers, found that patient resources varied significantly by site, and the information provided was not standardized across all WellSpan locations.

While revising and standardizing WellSpan’s radiation oncology patient resources, Schmalhofer happened to get into a conversation with several WellSpan IT developers who were doing some work for the organization, and he came up with the idea for locating patient resources in a downloadable app. As they explored the idea, Schmalhofer decided that a patient app could do more than just educate.

“I started looking at my experiences as a radiation therapist,” said Schmalhofer, “and my experiences with own my father going through cancer treatment. How could we enhance the patient treatment experience by using an app?”

With patient remote monitoring becoming more common and easier to use, there seemed to be no reason it couldn’t be incorporated into a WellSpan mobile app. “This would give patients a powerful tool to take a more proactive role their care,” says Schmalhofer. But there remained the issue of transmitting patient-reported information to clinicians and doing so in a way that was HIPAA-compliant and would not overburden the care team. The decision was made to work toward linking the app’s mobile technology with WellSpan’s Epic EHR system, which would enable clinicians to use patient-reported data, such as symptoms and side effects, to proactively monitor them.

In January 2019, after a year of development, WellSpan’s radiation oncology program launched a customized patient app that not only incorporates comprehensive patient education, but also offers remote monitoring, patient/physician communication, and a variety of support tools.

Now, when WellSpan patients going through radiation therapy experience side effects or symptoms, they can immediately record them in the app. Then, when the patient arrives for an office visit, the physician can access a chart that incorporates a report of the patient’s symptoms since his/her last visit. “We are working to be able to take reported symptoms and embed them into treatment notes in the EHR,” says Schmalhofer. “This would enable clinicians to see how severe a patient’s symptoms are. It gives a fuller, more accurate picture of a patient’s status.”

Incorporated into the app are patient appointment and treatment schedules and reminders, physician notifications, symptom trackers, secure messaging with care team members, access to support services, and features that enable family members to also access information and communicate with clinicians. Schmalhofer says that the original purpose for the app—patient education—has been enhanced by the mobile technology platform. Patients are now advised to download the app (and shown how, if necessary) before their first radiation consult to begin viewing information and instructional videos about their diagnosis and treatment.

These resources can help patients prepare for their first visit by giving them an idea of what to expect before they come through the door. “Right now, doctors spend a lot of time counseling anxious patients during their first consult,” explains Schmalhofer. “Having immediate access to education before they come to us helps decrease the amount of anxiety patients have going into treatment. If they are already armed with information, they will feel more empowered before they even begin.”

The hope is that the app’s remote monitoring features will help patients avoid emergency room visits by enabling physicians to proactively manage patient symptoms. “This could give us the added benefit of decreasing healthcare costs,” says Schmalhofer.

Since WellSpan’s app launched at the beginning of the year, Schmalhofer has been fielding inquiries from clinicians across the country who are considering similar patient support tools. He recommends that practices carefully evaluate how their patients learn and how they prefer to receive education materials. If programs decide an app is the best education platform for them, Schmalhofer recommends that providers take the time to develop their own customized app to better meet the needs of their specific patient population.

“Wellspan has gone through the hard work of developing this, and now we want to share it with others who may find it useful,” he says. “We can be a resource for other health systems that want to try this.”

As an ACCC Innovator Award winner, WellSpan will be doing just that. Join us at the National Oncology Conference in Orlando this fall where WellSpan will share details on their experience in developing the new app, lessons learned along the way, and the benefits it's bringing to patients and providers. Learn more and register.

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