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Cancer care by mobile

New mobile computing technology could help adolescents coping with cancer keep in touch with their social world and reduce isolation, according to German researchers writing today in the Inderscience publication, International Journal of Web Based Communities.

One in every two hundred cancer patients is a child and although diagnosis and treatment have improved considerably in recent years. Adolescents facing cancer are very often torn from their growing social world at a critical time in their development and can become quickly isolated. In part, the constantly changing therapy cycles and different treatment locations are to blame.

For instance, leukaemia treatment can last for two years and require chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and extended periods in hospital, often at different specialist centres, rather than a single location. Periods of isolation are often needed because the drugs make the patient more susceptible to infection. Many adolescent cancer patients also feel fragile and unattractive and shy away from social interaction other than with family, which can also be detrimental to friendships.

Jan Marco Leimeister, Uta Knebel, and Helmut Krcmar of the Technische Universität München, Germany are exploring how mobile information technology could be used to improve the perceived quality of life of adolescent cancer patients.

According to Leimeister, who is an expert in virtual communities, e-health and ubiquitous and mobile computing, a four-month field experiment conducted together with the cancer department of the hospital of Heidelberg University has brought to the fore the various challenges and requirements of patient mobile information systems. Their results also outline necessary future research that will allow the concept to be developed practically.

The most obvious answer to keeping teen cancer victims connected is through the use of mobile phone technology. Indeed, these could become a vital part of the recovery process allowing patients to keep in touch with friends and family even during extended periods of isolation. However, many hospitals prohibit the use of mobile phones because of perceived effects on sensitive medical equipment. Leimeister points out that some hospitals are loosening mobile phone restrictions provided they are not used close to such equipment.

The team suggests that a single portable device could act as contact point, allowing calls and messaging between patient and family and friends. It could be used as a kind of personal pager, reminding the patient to attend specific clinics on time or take their medicine. It could also store the patient's medical records for rapid access by healthcare staff and with appropriate sensors could monitor and record blood pressure and other vital signs.

Tests on the potential of such a device scenario have been tested with a smartphone. This is a combination of personal digital assistant (PDA), a digital camera and a tri-band mobile phone. Such a device is already available in the form of the XDA Pocket PC, which is the focus of Leimeister's study.

The camera and certain other functions can be used separately from the phone unit, say the researchers, which means the device can be useful in various tasks even in restricted hospital areas. Otherwise, it can connect to the internet, send and receive email, and run a wide range of computing applications similar to those found on a personal computer. The calendar, diary, notepad, SMS, email, and instant messaging capability provide the most possibilities for adolescent cancer patients, the researchers say.

The researchers have trialled XDA use with a small group of cancer patients. Their preliminary findings are very promising. The patients found the calendar and reminders very useful for keeping track of their treatment, while access to text messaging was very popular. The team found that when the patients had access to their desktop PCs at home, the portable device was less used, but hospitals and rehabilitation centres where a PC was not available, the mobile device provided the means to organise their lives and to communicate with family and friends very effectively.

Jim Corlett | alfa
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