Patient empowerment app wins Prix d’excellence
June 19, 2019
MONTREAL – A smartphone app developed at the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) that puts power in the hands of patients has won the prestigious Coup de Coeur des ministres honour at Les Prix d’excellence du réseau de la santé et des services sociaux.
The Opal patient portal app (opalmedapps.com) gives patients access to unique features such as contextualized medical data and personalized educational material, including lab results, medical notes and treatment plans. Opal also gives them the ability to check in and be notified for appointments using their smartphone.
Opal also encourages patients to actively participate in their care through questionnaires and feedback mechanisms that allow them to rate the educational material.
“With Opal, patients better understand their disease and ask more pertinent questions. That helps us focus the clinical visit on their needs,” said project co-lead Dr. Tarek Hijal (pictured), who is also a radiation oncologist at the MUHC and an associate investigator from the Cancer Research Program of the Research Institute of the MUHC (RI-MUHC).
Dr. Hijal expects the Opal app will have an impact on the day-to-day activities of the MUHC Radiation Oncology Department.
“We provide approximately 3,500 consultations, 10,000 follow-up appointments and 35,000 scheduled radiotherapy treatment sessions per year,” he says. “This app will not only greatly benefit our patients and their families but also our teams, by making communication and information-sharing between patients and the treating team seamless.”
“The McGill Medical Physics Unit has enthusiastically supported the Opal project since the start through the NSERC-funded CREATE Medical Physics Research Training Network program, which invested approximately $150,000 to co-fund 36 students doing undergraduate and graduate projects in computer science and medical physics under the supervision of Drs. Hendren, Kildea, and Hijal. These students were placed in a learning environment featuring the unique aspects of software development in the context of patient-centered healthcare. The fruits of this investment and the environment in which Opal was developed are now obvious,” said Dr. Jan Seuntjens, director medical physics unit, McGill University.
The Opal project started in 2014 in the departments of Medical Physics and Radiation Oncology of the MUHC. Initially, it aimed to use informatics to improve the performance of the radiation oncology department, by providing patients with realistic expectations regarding wait times – a well-known determinant of overall patient satisfaction.
The team quickly broke new ground by including co-lead and patient Laurie J. Hendren as a full and equal leader in research. As it progressed, the team of patients, clinicians, physicists, radiation therapists and informatics experts, including students from Computer Science at McGill University, used the feedback of dozens of patients to fine-tune the app and transform it into a sophisticated tool for patient empowerment.
“Opal was designed to be useful and user-friendly,” says medical physicist Dr. John Kildea, a project co-lead and an investigator from the Cancer Research Program of the RI-MUHC.” “Pertinent information is automatically provided once the patient signs in, so they don’t need to upload it. They can also decide for themselves how much information they get. The goal is to minimize lost time and confusion and maximize empowerment and efficiency.”
“I am very proud of the Opal app. It greatly improves my patient experience; I hope that many other cancer patients will benefit as well,” said Hendren, who, unfortunately, succumbed to a long battle with cancer just days before Les Prix d’excellence announcement on Friday, May 31.
Hendren, who was a professor of Computer Science at McGill University, was a breast cancer patient undergoing treatment at the Cedars Cancer Centre of the MUHC and provided essential scientific contribution to the project and invaluable insight based on her experience as a patient. “Each patient is unique, so the Opal app automatically tailors information provided to the patients based on their diagnosis and their place in the treatment pathway.”
Patient confidentiality and security were among the top priorities of the Opal team, who worked with MUHC Information Resources to ensure all data are strongly encrypted. Furthermore, an external cyber security firm undertook penetration tests to detect any flaws in the system.
The Opal app is currently being tested by about 200 patients at the Cedars Cancer Centre with additional patients being added each day. Over the next two years, the app will be expanded to five other cancer centres in the Montreal area as part of a project funded by the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer and in collaboration with St-Mary’s Hospital and the Direction générale de cancérologie. The Opal team is also developing a version for caregivers.
“As Medical Director of the Cedars Cancer Centre, I know that the complexity of cancer is often confusing for patients and their families. I also know that patients who have a clearer pathway to their medical information and clinical team become more engaged in their care and have better outcomes. I am therefore extremely proud of our team for having developed an innovative mobile application to help our cancer patients access their medical information, receive important notifications and interact with their healthcare providers,” said Dr. Armen G. Aprikian, chief of the cancer care mission, MUHC.