Insider Interview

Digital platforms and the world of oncology

Pharmafocus speaks to Eoin O’Carroll, cofounder and CEO of oncology platform ONCOAssist, about the importance of digital platforms in this complex and ever-evolving field
Pharmafocus: What motivated you to develop ONCOAssist, and how can digital platforms such as this benefit the oncology landscape?
Eoin O’Carroll: I started ONCOAssist with my business partner, as a result of doing a Master's in Electronic Business in University College Cork in Ireland. As part of that, we had to create an online business. His brother at the time was a trainee oncologist and we asked him what issues he had found in hospital settings. The main problem for him was getting access to veterinary clinical information. One particular tool we worked on during that project went very well, and as a result of that, we just saw there was a niche, and there was limited access to that tool. We also saw that there was quite a variety of tools and information that were not available in the oncology field at the point of care, so we wanted to create a mobile application that can quickly be opened and can give you all the information that you need. We thought that it would be a great opportunity to make those tools available to the oncology community globally, both oncologists and oncology nurses. The way that digital platforms like this have benefitted the oncology landscape has been two-fold over the last number of years. It has sped up the process of getting the information and allowing the community access to clinically valid information, because ONCOAssist is classified as a medical device. Secondly, we've been able to provide the information to low-to-middle income countries. The app is totally free globally, but the ability for those clinicians and nurses in the low-tomiddle income countries to get the same quality information as those in high income countries has been a great benefit.
What areas of healthcare alongside oncology still require advanced digital transformation?
All areas could benefit from digitalisation, because of the ability to open up your mobile phone and get access to valid information. Being trusted and validated is probably the most essential part of what we provide. That can be applicable to cardiology, various surgeries, and other areas of specialty. We've also seen that in haematology, and we're working on that area as well because it's closely aligned with oncology. We haven't gotten into other areas because oncology is such a big area and we have that wealth of experience, but there are opportunities in so many other areas in healthcare.
What are the main challenges involved in the widespread adoption of medical technology?
Over the last three years, adoption has been quite slow. We have been around for over 10 years now and we thought we would be a lot further along in terms of digital adoption. The industry is very cautious about the adoption of clinically valid tools; they’ll ask “Is this software clinically valid?” and “Can it be used safely in a hospital setting?” This is especially difficult for startup companies ‒ alot of the big players are developing their own software, and the smaller companies might find it quite difficult to build up trust that has already been established in the community.
I suppose the biggest challenge would be the difficulty in adapting in the clinical pathway, and within hospitals itself. Over the years, we've been using a range of tools within ONCOAssist that have many points in the clinical pathway, and clinicians have been able to use it at various points within that. The systems and pathways that are currently in hospital settings are very rigorous, and they're very defined. A lot of clinicians are already happy with the pathways that they have, and bringing in digital tools that they might not be as digitally savvy in using means that there is a fear of the unknown.
Whilst COVID-19 was obviously detrimental to the healthcare industry in a lot of ways – in what way was it a catalyst for digital transformation?
From a digital perspective, it allowed the whole industry to become conscious of those new digital pathways in terms of presenting information, and allowing physicians to interact with their patients. The restrictive nature of COVID-19 made it difficult for patients and physicians to keep in contact with each other. Telehealth was probably the most prominent digital technology that was brought into the industry as a result of COVID-19, and it had a very good impact in terms of allowing the industry to take on a new way of managing patients, as opposed to pre-COVID-19 where those solutions weren’t there. There was a pushback because the face-to-face nature of meeting patients is always a necessity, but COVID-19 has allowed physicians to be a bit more comfortable with the digital nature of telehealth.
Clinicians have also benefitted from patient monitoring tools (in terms of wearables) and feeding that back into the hospital networks. That's starting to kind of go in the right direction as well. It's benefitting in the long run, in terms of digital trends and allowing patients to record their own information and give it to doctors.
From an informative drug information standpoint, we have found within ONCOAssist that we've been able to work with pharmaceutical companies a lot more to bring digital content to oncologists that would benefit them in ways that they haven't done before. Bringing them information about new indications, or new ways of administering the drugs that are available to patients, is very helpful as well. The pharmaceutical industry can become a bit more tech-savvy as well, to allow that information to be sent back to the physician, and benefit them as well.
What are the advantages of healthcare tracking in patient care?
I think the big benefit is that it’s bringing a whole new element in terms of patient monitoring, as patients are meeting their doctors and nurses on a two-to-three week basis. However, there’s no understanding of how that patient is performing when they're away from the hospital. That's kind of been a gap in the healthcare industry, in terms of the patient's improvement and how they're performing at home. This has allowed physicians and nurses to be able to intervene at earlier stages if a patient is feeling unwell, in terms of who's on a certain prescription or certain certain medication. Those alerts, through ePros and ePro solutions, can be brought back to the patient.
For the patients and their own healthcare, it also allows multiple ways of monitoring their own health, for example their breathing or their heart rate. It's been quite vital. 
Another advantage is the overall data trends and the ability to capture these trends of how patients are doing away from home. All these data sets are now becoming available in terms of patients and how they're reacting to drugs at home, how their activity is improving, if their medications had any side effects, if they are improving or disapproving as a result of taking a medication, or if a medication had an overall side effect that we were not aware of. All of these elements are becoming available, and these trends are starting to come on board in terms of these these new insights that we never had before. We're very much in the early stages of tracking this data and finding these overall trends, but it's very exciting in terms of the possibilities and what we might find in terms of the overall aspect of improving patient's lifestyle.