Keeping a Close Watch on Patients' Fitness

More than just wristwatches, wearable fitness trackers can help assess patients’ health, and the ONS Foundation plans to fund research into the devices.
BY CHRISTOPHER PIRSCHEL
PUBLISHED: AUGUST 04, 2017
New technologies can often seem like futuristic pipe dreams. Flying cars, cities on the moon or whole meals shrunk to fit inside a little pill are typically the trappings of science fiction. But consider the immense technological advancements and their societal impacts in just the past 25 years. We have smart devices in our pockets capable of allowing us to see and talk with loved ones across the world in real time. There are watches that read our emails, track our heartbeats and measure the distance we’ve walked in a day. We might not have communities on the moon, but technology has certainly come a long way.

For oncology nurses and nurse researchers, evolving technology is one avenue that is helping to improve the quality of care for patients with cancer. Recently at the Oncology Nursing Society’s (ONS) 42nd Annual Congress — an oncology nurse-focused conference in Denver, Colorado — researchers presented new information about using health trackers, like Fitbits, in patient care.

ONS member Jennifer Briden, B.S.N., RN, of Parkland Medical Center in Salem, New Hampshire, attended with the help of the ONS Foundation’s Congress Scholarship, and attended an educational session about the use of health trackers in practice.

“In many health tracker apps, you can not only track steps, stairs, sleep and workouts, but also fluid and food intake,” Briden says. “The goal-setting application would assist practitioners with getting patients to gradually increase their steps, hydration levels and nutrition goals with each visit. I could see many of my patients who are combatting fatigue from their chemotherapy finding benefit from slowly increasing their step goals every week.”

Jinbing Bai, Ph.D., M.S.N., RN, a postdoctoral researcher at Emory University who is also an ONS member and ONS Foundation Congress Scholarship recipient, sees the value in the personalized data collected from health tracking devices. “Health care providers or practitioners can use the real-time data collected to modify or strengthen interventions for individual patients, like increasing or decreasing physical activities based on their reported fatigue scores,” she says.

Addressing Obesity for Cancer Survivors

The session Briden attended touched on the need to address obesity in the cancer survivor population. According to information gathered by the National Cancer Institute, more than 31 percent of cancer survivors older than 20 were considered obese in 2015. It’s an issue that’s prevalent in the survivorship community, and one that Briden says could benefit from the use of health trackers.

“One of my patients is a breast cancer survivor who is two years post-chemotherapy and radiation treatment, and could not lose the 20 pounds she had gained during her treatment,” she says. The patient decided to buy a Fitbit “and discovered she walked well over 10 flights of stairs a day, so she increased her goal to 20 flights of stairs a day. She reported that, by increasing her stair goal, she found that her daily steps also gradually increased. Soon after, she began to drop some of the weight that she had gained. The last time she came into my office, she’d joined her local YMCA, was walking over 10,000 steps a day and had lost 15 of the 20 pounds she needed to lose.”

Health trackers could allow practitioners and patients to monitor and address sleep issues and review nutritional data, paving the way for helpful interventions, Bai notes.

Looking to the Future of Health Tracker Technology

As a researcher, Bai is interested in the future potential benefits of health trackers. “These health trackers can potentially provide innovative, efficient, convenient and cost-effective ways to monitor the progression of patient-reported outcomes and symptoms,” she says. “Technologyrelated health trackers could provide new ways to for us to monitor a patient’s status remotely and allow us to act immediately. This could help nurses intervene with patients more efficiently, addressing their symptoms when they occur. On a global scale, we would be able to monitor patients no matter where they go, aiding them when they need it.”

Bai acknowledges that more in-depth study will be needed before we fully understand the impact and validity of health trackers on cancer care. The ONS Foundation agrees, and has committed its support to funding health tracker research through grants to oncology nurse scientists.

“Trackers still need to be tested for use in terms of reliability and validity,” Bai says. “Oncology nurses need to be able to provide patients with additional education and training about how to correctly use the devices, what the parameters mean and how to evaluate the devices’ function.”

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