Technologic Innovations Are Likely to Transform Oncology Care

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Oncology and medicine as a whole are likely to benefit from a variety of technologic innovations recently showcased at the third annual The Atlantic Meets the Pacific symposium, according to Peter P. Yu, MD, President-Elect of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, and medical oncologist and Director of Cancer Research at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, Mountain View and Sunnyvale, California.

The symposium—a joint collaboration of The Atlantic magazine and the University of California, San Diego—brings together top thought leaders in technology, the sciences, and health to discuss innovations in these fields and issues surrounding their implementation in real-world practice. It features one-on-one interviews, panel discussions, and laboratory tours. More than 300 scientists, engineers, physicians, software developers, venture capitalists, and patient advocates attended this year’s event.

 “Personally, I found the symposium valuable because of the exposure to people who are in the cancer space but are not physicians.… For the most part, they appear to be highly intelligent and knowledgeable about the field,” Dr. Yu commented in an interview. “I found it a validation of what we [oncologists] are thinking and doing … in the sense that it isn’t going to be as hard to explain to someone what we are doing because they are already wondering about the same questions. They don’t necessarily have our degree of insight into cancer or the possible solutions, but they understand the issues in a broad sense. So that means we can engage these folks more readily.”

Harnessing Big Data

A major symposium theme was harnessing big data—the mining of vast amounts of information to solve problems and ultimately improve outcomes. “I heard a lot of generalities in terms of molecular medicine, precision medicine, and drugs and diseases.… People have a better sense of what that means than they did, say, 5 years ago,” Dr. Yu commented.

“But big data is where we were with molecular medicine 10 year ago, where we believed in it, we could see it, but it wasn’t tangible—patients weren’t living decades longer because of that,” he continued. “So the big data people are still not sure they have their hands around it. That makes it positive for us with CancerLinQ, because if we can offer something that’s more tangible, people will gravitate toward that.”

Symposium presenters discussed a variety of novel technologies that are poised to change the clinician and patient experience. “The technologies seemed to be unified by a single concept, which is unleashing the information that’s already known somewhere and bringing it to bear at the time when it’s most relevant,” Dr. Yu observed. Examples included use of Google Glass during medical visits to streamline accessing of online information, and programs that crunch patient data to anticipate complications after chemotherapy or surgery and preemptively send out queries to patients.

Cost Issues

Inevitably, a key issue attendees broached was the cost of these advances. “It may be great and cool and wonderful, but can we afford it?” Dr. Yu commented. “The answer is, we can afford it if it improves outcomes sufficiently to justify it and/or if it saves money immediately because it eliminates a problem that we would have to spend even more money on if we don’t do this right. And it has to be now—it can’t be, well, we do this now, and 10 years from now we’ll reap the savings, because no one’s going to pay for that,” he said.

“There’s a sense of energy, a sense that we need to move faster, that the world wants more from us, more quickly—and that we have to look hard at what we’re doing because we are not doing it fast enough and we’re not doing it affordably enough,” he said, summing up the atmosphere at the ­symposium.

Inevitable Tradeoff

However, Dr. Yu acknowledged, “there’s something that’s lost by moving away from a very slow, methodical approach.… The concern I’ve heard from some oncologists is that if we only look for the big leaps forward, we will inadvertently miss the small—but what turn out to be very important—new drug or new therapy that maybe in a different setting would have proven to be a blockbuster, but in the setting we studied it in was only a small step forward. There is that risk, and I don’t think there is any way to get around it…. That’s a tradeoff that we have to decide about.” ■

Disclosure: Dr. Yu reported no potential conflicts of interest.