Connected Health is Essential to Accelerate Progress Against Cancer

by Barbara K. Rimer, DrPH, Chair, President’s Cancer Panel and Dean and Alumni Distinguished Professor, UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health

In 2011, when President Obama appointed me, Owen Witte, MD, and Hill Harper, JD, to the President’s Cancer Panel, we were determined to select and frame topics for exploration that would be actionable and make a difference for the cancer community in the United States and beyond. As we viewed challenges in cancer prevention and care, we saw the great but unrealized potential of connected health, a term that captures the ways technology is changing how we manage health.

We have witnessed incredible advances in technology and connectivity over the past 20 years, particularly during President Obama’s time in office. They have transformed most aspects of everyday life, perhaps most powerfully in how we manage our health. Increasingly, many of us look to the Internet when we need health or medical information. New technologies help millions and millions of people around the world monitor physical activity and diet, manage medications, and support one another in navigating cancer and other diagnoses and working toward health goals. The access we now have to unprecedented amounts of health data has changed how we make health-related decisions. All of these ways we use technology to facilitate the efficient and effective collection, flow, and use of health information, or connected health, are essential to support health management and the delivery of quality, patient-centered care, particularly for cancer.

Today, the Panel released our latest report to President Obama, Improving Cancer-Related Outcomes with Connected Health, which focuses on the development and use of technologies to promote cancer prevention, enhance the experience of cancer care for patients and care teams, and accelerate progress in cancer research. The Panel is charged with monitoring the National Cancer Program — which includes all public and private activities focused on preventing, detecting, and treating cancers and on cancer survivorship — and reporting to the President of the United States on barriers to progress. It’s a huge responsibility.

In workshops we held to gather input for this report, we heard all-too-common stories from patients who report being unable to access or share their own health information or get potentially harmful errors corrected in their health records. They told us about having to contact hospitals to get hard copies of records as required for cancer consultations and how difficult this process can be, especially when most of the information is contained within electronic health records as required by law. Health informatics experts described health IT systems that do not “talk” to each other, leaving health information and data critical to patient care trapped in silos. Clinicians shared their frustrations with using poorly designed electronic health record systems. From researchers, we heard about barriers to collaboration and the need for a central location to access, share, and extract knowledge from the mountains of clinical and genomic data we now have the capacity to collect.

Alongside these challenges, we also heard about many exciting examples of technologies that illustrate the potential of connected health, many of which we highlight in the report. But the availability of technologies themselves is only one part of the picture. They should be user-centered — designed with care to meet the needs of people who use them. There is still a lot of unfinished business ahead to break down persisting technological and cultural barriers to data sharing so that all partners involved in a patient’s care have timely and equitable access to the information they need to make decisions. We also must increase substantially the number of people who have access to the Internet, particularly broadband access, which is still lacking for millions in the U.S. Collaboration among researchers, clinicians, and other stakeholders must become the norm to expedite scientific discovery and development of new methods to prevent and treat the disease. Vice President Biden has spoken articulately and forcefully about these critical needs.

Better systems are within our grasp if we reach for them. Optimism for the future, about which President Obama has written so eloquently, reminds us that we need to put today’s advances to work harder tomorrow to cure disease and address the health inequities that persist in the United States.

The Cancer Moonshot amplifies that optimism. It celebrates decades of public health and medical advances we’ve made against cancer and recognizes that we are entering a new, exciting era. It builds a launch pad for this next phase by bringing together the brightest minds and most committed spirits to collaborate to find new ways to prevent and treat cancer. As we further our understanding of the many diseases that comprise cancer and harness the power of emerging technologies and scientific discoveries, we can push the boundaries of what we never imagined possible.

I’m grateful that the Cancer Moonshot has illuminated the important work being done by people — patients, caregivers, clinicians, researchers, advocates, health IT developers, and countless others across the globe — to eliminate cancer as we know it. Ensuring that all have the information and tools needed to accelerate the pace of progress against cancer is what connected health is all about.