A smartphone app to monitor cancer patients03 de agosto de 2021
By Fábio de Castro | FAPESP Innovative R&D – In 2017, the startup WeCancer launched the first version of a smartphone app for use in remote monitoring of cancer patients. It has proved so effective in connecting healthcare services with these patients that several hospitals have signed up. It has more than 2,500 users and performs 800 care processes per month on average.
The firm has just had a project approved by the FAPESP Innovative Research in Small Business Program (PIPE) to develop a model that prevents hospitalization, adding artificial intelligence and machine learning to the app. This will increase the benefit to the national health system (SUS) by avoiding unnecessary hospitalizations and reducing treatment costs.
According to César Filho, co-founder and CEO of WeCancer, hospitals pay a monthly fee to give their cancer patients access to the platform, enabling medical teams to monitor their data.
“Our technological products include the app, which patients use free of charge, and a dashboard for use by the medical team,” he says. “The platform also offers an area for management of symptoms and another for organizing treatment, as well as informational content and a chat box for patients to interact directly with hospital staff.”
In the app, patient profiles include personal data, medications in use, and daily activities. Physical and mental health indicators are converted into graphics for viewing by medical teams, who use them to track the patients’ clinical condition and progress during treatment.
According to César Filho, WeCancer has its own staff for coordinating patient care and navigation, led by oncologist Tiago Jorge, the firm’s medical director responsible for a team comprising a psychologist, nurse, nutritionist, pharmacist, and clinical researcher.
“We also have a unit that captures data and converts it into information and knowledge, creating intelligence for partner hospitals, which can use this resource to optimize care,” César Filho says.
The service is designed to improve patient quality of life. “We soon realized it wouldn’t be enough to have the software alone. Patients may feel nauseous, for example, and need immediate care and advice,” he explains.
The flow of patients has increased incessantly since the app was launched. In June alone, for example, 1,100 care sessions took place, according to César Filho, with 600 being paid for by the SUS. “Over 50% of our users are receiving treatment from the public health service,” he says.
According to Lorenzo Cartolano, co-founder and CFO of WeCancer, besides the business plan that focuses on hospitals, the firm also works with the pharmaceutical industry, which uses the platform to offer products and services to its customers.
“In the pharma-facing business unit, we facilitate special care sessions involving immunotherapy, for example, or conduct clinical research with partners at research institutions who use the platform to monitor and interact with patients during clinical trials,” Cartolano explains.
In the case of the hospital-facing business unit, the firm licenses its software, which hospital teams use as a patient relationship channel. Alternatively, they can farm patient care out to WeCancer.
“There’s a cost to maintaining our own team, but thanks to our technology and product design we’re now able to automate some parts of the process to gain efficiency and scale. We currently have the installed capacity to service 1,600 patients per month,” Cartolano says.
The hospitals that use WeCancer’s platform include the Einstein (Hospital Israelita Albert Einstein), Beneficência Portuguesa, Municipal Vila Santa Catarina, and Paraná Cancer Institute. The pharmaceutical companies that use it include Roche and AstraZeneca.
According to Cartolano, who joined WeCancer in early 2017, the firm has expanded strongly since o 2018 when it was selected to be part of the Einstein’s innovation hub, Eretz.bio, acquiring mentors and received its first institutional investment.
“We applied for support from the Einstein’s startup incubator and discovered they were developing a similar solution. In April 2018, our firm was taken on board by the incubator, and the institution stopped developing its own startup with an identical mission, investing instead in us,” César Filho recalls.
Both César Filho, who has a degree in biology, and Cartolano, who has an MBA, tell us the firm’s mission was inspired by the personal tragedy of losing their mothers to cancer. In 2014, César Filho closely followed his mother’s treatment for ovarian cancer. Brought up by a poor family in Minas Gerais, he assisted her while she endured the difficult treatment administered by the SUS for 11 months.
“She had to travel 80 kilometers to another town, a frequent necessity in many parts of Brazil, where there are few cancer hospitals. I often didn’t know what to do if my mother suffered adverse reactions at home,” he says.
From contacts with other patients, he realized this is very common, and that patients living in rural areas almost always have to travel long distances to a hospital in a big city for cancer treatment.
“They go to a local doctor, who refers them to a specialist in the state capital,” he muses. “It’s enormously harmful to the family’s health and finances. A tragedy, because many patients end up in an emergency room, where at least half shouldn’t be at all. This happens to millions of people.”
The experience motivated him to work out a way of taking the hospital to the patient’s home. “I noticed that patients are at home most of the time, without any medical support. They know next to nothing about adverse effects and easily fall victim to fake news. The family end up falling sick as well,” he says.
Then through mutual friends he met Cartolano, who was working in the financial industry and had the business acumen to set up a firm. Cartolano too had recently lost his mother, in this case to pancreatic cancer. He became a partner and made his first investment in the firm, allocating BRL 80,000.
“It had never occurred to me to work in healthcare, but I’d been through a similar experience to César’s. The context was different, as it was a private hospital in Rio de Janeiro, but the pain was the same, and we worked hard to make this story into a business. The firm was born of love and nostalgia, in homage to our mothers,” Cartolano recalls.
The aim was to develop a patient-centric platform and user-friendly app for patients who were not at ease with technology and had little formal schooling. “Our long-term goal is to cease being a digital therapy platform and become a health platform,” he says. “It’s feasible, given the very strong trend in oncology toward administering medications orally and subcutaneously, so that patients can get treatment in their own homes, significantly increasing the relevance of our solution.”