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The medium and the message

e-Health is no longer a wave of the future — it’s our reality

Project director Michela Aguirre, from left, Alexander Prokhorov, M.D., Ph.D., and Ludmila Cofta-Woerpel, Ph.D., use web-based tools, such as the @The Table cookbook, to empower patients, survivors and those at risk for developing cancer with healthful lifestyle choices. Photo by John EverettBy Katrina Burton

When it comes to communicating about health and well-being, the medium can be just as important as the message. Technological advances in the health care industry have prompted an increased use of e-health technology — multimedia and computer-aided intervention and assessment tools — to provide unique ways for people to be better informed about their health.  Some of the most exciting examples are in the area of cancer prevention and cancer care.

Not only do e-health tools and software provide researchers an opportunity to better investigate and disseminate health information to targeted populations, they also empower the end-user. In the cancer world the end-users are patients, survivors and those at risk for developing cancer. That’s essentially everyone.

Advances in technology care

“We’re living in a new era — the era of health technology,’ says Alexander Prokhorov, M.D., Ph.D., professor in Behavioral Science and co-director of the e-Health Technology Program in the Duncan Family Institute for Cancer Prevention and Risk Assessment (DFI). “Our e-Health Technology Program makes that leap into modern technology in cancer prevention research and outreach activities. These tools are designed to help people become stronger advocates of healthful lifestyles and reduce their cancer risk.”

Established four years ago  through funding from a generous gift from the Duncan Family Foundation, the e-Health Technology Program at MD Anderson is one of four DFI resources dedicated to cancer prevention research support. The program enables researchers to develop and enhance cancer prevention and control interventions and assessment tools through web, mobile and multimedia applications. Its team of technologically savvy developers creates video, audio and graphic design to address health behavior change, symptoms, quality of life and more among patients and the public at large.  

“The team also uses mobile devices to streamline information exchange between researchers and study participants to make these interventions more effective,” says Michela Aguirre, project director.

Innovative research tools at work

“With technology playing such a crucial role in health care research, we designed a program to help researchers conceptualize and develop prototype methods, programs and devices that could have a much broader use,” says Prokhorov.

One such tool is a web-based project developed for MD Anderson’s Children’s Cancer Hospital to support the ON (Optimizing Nutrition) to Life Program, which promotes healthful eating habits in pediatric patients and survivors through education, behavioral science and innovative research. The @TheTable cookbook includes an online, mobile-enhanced database of hundreds of family-friendly, customizable recipes collected from MD Anderson employees, patients, professional chefs and the community. The site includes interactive web modules and cooking demos, as well as nutritional information.

Another promising tool of the program is the mobile application for Ecological Momentary Assessment (EMA), used to assess behaviors, symptoms and emotional or cognitive states of people in “real-world” environments. Ludmila Cofta-Woerpel, Ph.D., assistant professor in MD Anderson’s Department of Behavioral Science and co-director of the e-Health Technology Program, was involved with EMA research back in the day of palmtop computers. Through the new technology, she appreciates the advances in this area and what they mean for improving data collection for research purposes.  

“This methodology ensures ecological validity of the data, has the ability to overcome many biases of retrospective recall and makes it possible  to capture a degree of detail that retrospective questionnaires can’t record,” says Cofta-Woerpel. EMA applications built by MD Anderson’s e-Health Technology Program , she says, have reusable architecture and cross-platform capability, and come with a web-based database and content management system.

In a “perfect” world

The concept of e-health technology is becoming a standard domain in science as it becomes increasingly important for researchers to think creatively when developing cancer prevention and treatment interventions for the community. Prokhorov, for example, created ASPIRE (A Smoking Prevention Interactive Experience), an online smoking-cessation website that targets youths. He envisions the possibilities for an even more interactive smoking cessation tool.

“The e-Health Technology team hopes to help develop a lightweight portable smoking-cessation tool, equipped with built-in sensors that can detect  ‘real life’ smoking environments and can deliver an intervention  to help users quit smoking and to prevent a smoking relapse,” says Prokhorov.

Cofta-Woerpel also sees this type of tool as beneficial to researchers interested in momentary diet or medication adherence interventions. This type of “just in time” intervention is possible because the tool would capture and monitor self-report or sensor data in real time.

“This will be an innovative tool for researchers interested in diet, stress or nicotine withdrawal, to give just a few examples,” says Cofta-Woerpel. “Our program has full capability to create applications for such interventions that help researchers collect data more efficiently and help patients, survivors and community members improve their health behaviors.”

For more information on MD Anderson’s e-Health Technology Program, visit Prevention Resources.

e-Health technology supports Duncan Family Institute

The Duncan Family Institute for Cancer Prevention and Risk Assessment was established in 2008 through a $35 million gift from the Duncan Family Foundation. The institute supports the novel research of MD Anderson researchers, scientists and clinicians whose main focus is cancer prevention, a critical but often underfunded component of the cancer care continuum. e-Health Technology is an important resource that provides infrastructure to advance the science of cancer prevention at the Duncan Family Institute.

“Private philanthropy helps sustain important research and provides an opportunity for our researchers, clinicians and scientists to create a positive and notable impact on public health,” says Jennifer Tektiridis, executive director of the Duncan Family Institute for Cancer Prevention and Risk Assessment in Cancer Prevention and Population Sciences. “We’re grateful for the Duncan Family Foundation’s support.”

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© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center