Published: April 10, 2013

Testing new tools for better cancer care

Contact(s): Andy McGlashen Media Communications office: (517) 355-2281, Jill Vondrasek College of Nursing office: (517) 353-8742 jill.vondrasek@hc.msu.edu

Researchers in Michigan State University’s College of Nursing will use two federal grants to explore tools for helping cancer patients navigate the often daunting instructions that come with new chemotherapy drugs.

Cancer care has been transformed in recent years by chemotherapy in pill form that patients can take at home. Oral chemo doesn’t require regular trips to the cancer clinic for intravenous drugs, but it lacks clinical supervision.

“These patients need help because the recommended treatment is very complex,” said University Distinguished Professor of nursing Barbara Given. “It’s not like taking one medication every day. Every month there’s a different protocol for many of these drugs.”

Given and her husband, Charles Given, MSU professor of family medicine, will lead a clinical trial to see if an automated phone call system can help patients take their pills properly. The calls remind patients to take their drugs and refer them to a handbook for managing symptoms and the drugs’ side effects.

The four-year, $2.2 million grant from the National Cancer Institute marks 37 years of continuous funding for Barbara Given from the National Institutes of Health, of which the NCI is part.

“Our hope is to come up with something that will make it easier for patients,” Given said. “If it works, it could be distributed broadly to cancer centers for patients to use.”

In a previous study funded by the Oncology Nursing Society, Given and colleagues found that more than 40 percent of patients missed doses. The price of such mistakes is high: The chemo pills are ineffective if not taken properly, and they can cost $700 or more per dose – which insurance doesn’t always cover.

Meanwhile, Sandra Spoelstra, assistant professor of nursing, will use a two-year, $350,000 grant – also from the NCI – to tackle the same problem with different technology. Her project will test the effectiveness of text messages reminding patients to take their chemo pills and requiring them to reply when they’ve done so.

“We do not know if cancer patients who are older will use text messaging,” Spoelstra said. “There is evidence that more seniors are texting with their grandchildren, and the technology is readily available. So this could be a platform to enhance patients’ ability to take their chemo pills as prescribed.”

Spoelstra said she hopes her project lays the groundwork for a larger clinical trial and builds the College of Nursing’s research capacity by getting nursing students involved in clinical research and learning about it as a career.

She said the two studies are about finding a menu of effective options for patients with various needs.

“Some patients will need a nurse to phone them,” Spoelstra said. “Others will only need an automated call or a text message. It’s ultimately about finding what works for each individual patient.”

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