How Health Informatics Can Help with Cancer Detection, Treatment and Research

How Health IT Helps Cancer Research

Health informatics is one of the most effective and important tools available in the fight against cancer. Organizations such as the National Cancer Institute (NCI) rely on shared data from many sources, and that information must be organized.

That’s where health informatics comes in. The term cancer informatics has arisen in recent years to describe the combination of research, treatment, information science and computer science in the societal effort to:

  • Determine specific causes of cancer
  • Improve early detection methods and rates
  • Devise more effective cancer treatment methods
  • Understand the effect of cancer on different population segments
  • Improve patient outcomes and reduce cancer recurrence

The advent of electronic health records, massive sets of public health data and technological improvements driven by government research, private competition and a combination of public and private efforts places health informatics very much at the center of progress made in the area of cancer prevention and treatment during the past decade.

Enabling Collaboration through Technology

One of the major missions of the National Cancer Institute and other organizations dedicated to cancer research is to ensure communication among entities in order to share best practices and breakthroughs.

The NCI facilitates collaboration through its National Cancer Informatics Program (NCIP), which operates the NCIP Hub as a means for enabling communication among stakeholders. The NCIP provides health IT professionals open access to the code used in NCIP apps. Developers can modify the code used to analyze large chunks of research data and share those modifications with others, who in turn can make further modifications to improve the efficiency and accuracy of the available data.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) also contributes to cancer research collaboration through its National Program of Cancer Registries-Advancing E-cancer Reporting and Registry Operations (NPCR-AERRO). This public program is intended to streamline and automate cancer registration through better surveillance models and more accurate data reporting.

Another major government effort involves the National Cancer Policy Forum, which provides a platform for government and private entities to collaborate on critical policy issues related to cancer care and research. The CDC, the American Cancer Society, the American Association of Cancer Research, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Merck are just a few of the organizations that collaborate through the National Cancer Policy Forum to identify public health issues related to cancer and find ways to work together toward the common goal of eradicating cancer.

These organizations and many others rely on health informatics to organize, store and analyze large and evolving data sets, as well as to draw actionable conclusions based on the available data. Data management entails:

  • Gathering information from clinical trials around the world
  • Determining ways to apply the results of analysis to clinical practices
  • Determining ways to measure outcomes and evaluating outcomes based on those measurements
  • Creating new hypotheses based on the outcomes

Making Progress with Health IT

Another offshoot of the NCI is the Informatics Technology for Cancer Research (ITCR) initiative, which “supports innovative investigator-initiated informatics technology development to improve the acquisition, analysis, and dissemination of data and knowledge in the investigation and management of cancer.”

The ITCR initiative brings together researchers for monthly conference calls and training sessions, and convenes for an annual conference that features expert presentations on imaging technology, research breakthroughs, clinical advances and other topics.

The ITCR is only one of many public or private initiatives designed to use the power of health informatics to manage and improve cancer care. In 2012, participants from the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), the NCI, the National Institutes for Health and the eHealth Initiative gathered in Washington, D.C. to develop a national research agenda for patient engagement using health IT supported communication and care coordination for cancer.

Here are themes, ideas and questions that emerged from that ground-breaking conference:

  • Patients should be able to access their data, and that requires easy-to-use, easy-to-interpret tools that can be used securely on any connected device.
  • Patients and their families must be empowered to engage in and participate in cancer prevention, detection and treatment.
  • Breakthroughs using genomic sequencing and molecular diagnostics can provide huge advances in treatment methods across broad populations, but health IT’s utility also comes into play on the individual level based on demographics, psychosocial factors and socioeconomic factors.

In the aftermath of that 2012 meeting, the federal government announced a “Cancer Moonshot,” to be spearheaded by a Blue Ribbon Panel working with experts across the spectrum of cancer research and treatment. In September 2016, the Blue Ribbon Panel presented its report to the National Cancer Advisory Board, featuring “10 transformative research recommendations” to achieve the Moonshot’s goal of making 10 years’ worth of progress in only five years.

Many of the recommendations feature elements related to health informatics, including:

  • Establishing a network for direct patient involvement, allowing patients to contribute profile data to expand the base of knowledge
  • Establishing a cancer immunotherapy network to gain greater understanding of how and why immunotherapy works – and why it doesn’t in some cases
  • Constructing a national cancer data ecosystem in which cancer data can be openly shared and analyzed
  • Mining past patient data to predict future outcomes more accurately and develop better detection processes

Information technology professionals are at the forefront of cancer research. A Master of Science in Health Informatics from Jacksonville University can put you on a track to contribute to ongoing efforts to improve cancer management and care.


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