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How fitness technology can support life after cancer

The CATCH collaboration sought to identify and improve technological solutions for post-cancer rehabilitation.

Health

Cancer is the second highest cause of death and disability in Europe: there are more than 3.7 million cases annually. The EU-funded CATCH project investigated how physical rehabilitation can be improved for these patients. “In years past, cancer treatment was entirely focussed on saving lives,” says project coordinator Brian Caulfield. “Now, with some forms of cancer, the treatments are so successful we have to think more about the life after cancer.”

Physical exhaustion

Cancer rehabilitation is a growing field which focuses on how to help patients with lasting physical and psychological issues arising from cancer and its treatment. “Unlike an athlete with a torn hamstring, where everything else is in tip-top condition, cancer patients have to overcome physical issues from a place of physical and mental exhaustion, so we need to think of inventive ways to help them,” explains Caulfield. CATCH focused on three types of technology that could potentially exist in cancer rehabilitation, explains Caulfield, director of the SFI Insight Centre for Data Analytics at University College Dublin in Ireland. These comprised mobile phone apps to guide physical activity, neuromuscular electrical stimulation devices, and wearable fitness trackers. Personalisation, says Caulfield, was shown to be of crucial importance. When trying to change physical activity through smartphone applications, a one-size-fits-all approach ignores a patient’s unique physical circumstances and constraints. Adapting technology to the patient makes these more likely to be adopted.

Electrical stimulation

The consortium, representing six research institutions from across Denmark, Spain and Ireland, also carried out research into how portable neuromuscular electrical stimulation technology could support patient recovery. “We designed a personalised progression pathway that enabled us to implement a programme of electrical stimulation exercise training. This was designed to work with patients’ circumstances and their ability to progress,” adds Caulfield. As a result, the devices were better tolerated, and clinical results improved. The group also investigated the use of wearable motion sensor technology to help patients who have undergone surgery. The group worked with a wrist sensor which allows patients to interact with an avatar on a mobile app. This gives real-time feedback on the quality of their performance, as well as providing support and instructional videos and recording progress. The ability to track pain perception is key as messages can then be sent to the clinician concerned. The results of this work are already making an impact in the commercial space. “One of the industry partners is the research-based digital health company Salumedia Labs in Spain. A lot of the lessons and outcomes from this programme of research have found their way into the services they offer to clients. Not only that, several graduates from CATCH have been hired by the company, which is another approach for technology transfer via talent acquisition,” says Caulfield.

New treatments

The project was supported by the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions programme. “This has enabled eight young researchers to complete their PhDs and embark on careers in research. They would all say that they had a really good interdisciplinary educational experience,” notes Caulfield. “From the perspective of our partners, they will be very forthright in saying this has given them the opportunity to advance their research capability and given clinicians and patients exposure to new technologies and new treatments.”

Keywords

CATCH, cancer, rehabilitation, treatment, physical, exercise, Salumedia, neuromuscular, electrical, stimulation, technology

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