Telephones: Simple technology can improve cancer treatment


People use phones for just about everything these days—reading emails, checking the weather, or catching up on news. Researchers at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) want to add extended patient care to that list. They’re testing a telehealth system called “Symptom Care at Home” to help keep patients as healthy as possible during cancer treatment.

Kathi Mooney, PhD, co-leader of Cancer Control and Population Sciences at HCI, says the idea behind the program is that cancer patients’ symptoms don’t happen only while they are at the doctor’s office. Dr. Mooney has spent 15 years trying to improve patient care through a relatively simple technology—the telephone.

“We came up with an automated telephone system, and we asked patients to call daily basis,” she says. “They report the symptoms they had in the past 24 hours, and how severe they were.”

The automated system then suggests ways the patient can help relieve their symptoms at home. If the patient can’t get them under control, the automated system alerts the patient’s cancer care team at HCI to follow up directly.

Dr. Mooney says telling patients they must call in daily takes the pressure off of them to decide when they’re feeling unwell enough to call. “Some patients who are feeling really poorly just try to tough it out,” she says. “With the automated system, we know when to intervene so they get the care they need.”

Cathy Ostler Bearden was diagnosed with breast cancer five years ago and became part of the Symptom Care at Home study. She called in every day, and often a nurse practitioner called back about her severe nausea and fatigue. Those phone calls, Cathy says, kept her going during a difficult time. “To have a live voice on that phone asking me how I was and telling me what I could do—I was so grateful for that,” she adds.

She may literally owe her life to the telehealth system. On one call, she mentioned she was so tired she could hardly move. Cathy was told to go to the hospital, where doctors made an alarming discovery. “I had no white blood cells, none!” she says. “If I hadn't had that call, I think I would have just toughed it out and probably gotten very sick and died.”

Dr. Mooney says the studies at HCI found dramatic reductions in symptom experience compared to patients receiving conventional care. She hopes to extend the telehealth program to patients in rural communities, as well as caregivers and family members of cancer patients. “Caregivers have stressful lives. They're tired too,” she says. “We found coaching them about their own self-care dramatically improved their vitality.”

Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) is a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-Designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, which means it meets the highest standards for cancer research and receives support for its scientific endeavors. HCI is located on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and is a part of the University of Utah Health Care system. HCI treats patients with all forms of cancer and operates several high-risk clinics that focus on melanoma and breast, colon, and pancreas cancers, among others. HCI also provides academic and clinical training for future physicians and researchers. For more information about HCI, please visit