Patients suffering from advanced head and neck cancer typically require radiation therapy. It can effectively treat their disease but can also cause a painful side effect called mucositis.

“It’s a way of saying that the inside of their tongue, mouth and throat get very sore,” said Stuart Wong, MD, a hematologist/oncologist and MCW faculty member and researcher. Difficulty eating and swallowing, weight loss and the need for a stomach tube may result.

“The problem with this syndrome is not only treating it, but assessing the severity,” Dr. Wong said. “All patients have different levels of pain and different pain thresholds.”

To assess pain more accurately, Dr. Wong has received a grant to develop a clinical trial testing a smartphone app. He is collaborating with Yi Hu, PhD, an engineer at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, and Alexander Ng, PhD, an expert in cancer-related exercise physiology at Marquette University.

Unlike at typical visits to their doctors, when patients provide only a “snapshot” of their pain, the app would allow them to record their pain 24/7. “People are used to carrying phones with them all the time, so it’s a smart and easy way for patients to tell us about their pain and a high-tech way to assess it,” Dr. Wong said.

Information from the app will be sent over a secure server to physicians who can review it in real time. “It will also incorporate an activity monitor, so we can associate pain information with patient activity,” Dr. Wong said.

This first stage of the clinical trial will evaluate the app’s ability to collect data. In the future, Dr. Wong sees its potential to help physicians treat mucositis more effectively. “Opioid drugs are the cornerstone of managing this issue, but opioid prescriptions must be evaluated very carefully.”

Dr. Wong expects to recruit about 60 patients for the study. They will receive a standardized smartphone with the app installed, as well as an activity monitor watch.

“We’re just at the cutting edge of this,” Dr. Wong said. “We envision this as one of many different applications patients can use to improve their overall experience.”

Click here for more information about the clinical trial.

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