Cancer Prevention App Contest Offers $80,000

Federal health officials challenge developers to come up with an application that promotes early detection and helps the public reduce risky behavior.
Health IT Boosts Patient Care, Safety
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The Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) has launched a cash contest to devise the best consumer applications to help prevent and control cancer. "This challenge will provide useful tools for public health promotion and protection, a key goal of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services," according to ONC's announcement in the Federal Register.

The contest will run through Aug. 26, with the finalists to be selected on Nov. 18. The two finalist development teams will receive $20,000 each, and the four semi-finalists will get $10,000 each.

ONC expects the multidisciplinary teams to create apps that address the priorities of the National Cancer Institute's Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences (DCCPS). These include "behavior risk reduction for prevention, survivorship (e.g., nutrition, physical activity, smoking cessation), early detection and screening, informed decision-making, and adherence to treatment regimens."

The National Cancer Institute's public databases will be available to the entrants, as well as cancer-related data sets from other agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).

Most of the applicable datasets are from consumer surveys used in population research, said Katherine Virgo, Ph.D., managing director, health services research, for the American Cancer Society. These include the National Health Interview Survey, the California Health Interview Survey, and the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey. In addition, she suggested, development teams could look in the literature for studies of behavior modification methods that have proved effective.

The ONC contest is not the only one to spur development of health-related apps. Virgo recently worked with a tech-savvy student to build a breast cancer app that he entered into a cash contest sponsored by Harvard Medical School and Children's Hospital Boston. His program allows patients to measure their cancer risk and to enter data related to their health behavior that goes into their doctor's electronic medical record. (The $5,000 prize went to Polyglot Systems for an app providing multilingual medication instructions.)

The American Cancer Society fully supports these kinds of contests, partly because they have the potential to engage younger people through the technologies they use every day, Virgo said. "Some older people are also using these apps and accessing information through these sources," she added.

"Part of the benefit is that as you educate patients more, they understand better the need for some of the preventive types of tests they're asked to undergo," she said. "If you ask a patient to undergo colonoscopy and they don't understand the reason, they're not too apt to go in and take a day off from work, plus do all the prep that's required. With these apps, you can reach out to people and it's not overly invasive. It's something they can access on their own."

Some apps could also be useful to "cancer survivors"--now defined as anyone who has ever had a diagnosis of cancer. "You want cancer survivors coming back on a regular basis for office visits or chest x-rays or CTs," Virgo pointed out. "You want to remind them of their appointments and have them return often enough so we can identify a recurrence of the cancer early on. Apps could be a nice mechanism for that."

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