U-M develops app that calculates risk of delaying cancer treatments during COVID-19

Experts at the University of Michigan developed the OncCOVID app for doctors to calculate risk of delaying cancer treatments during COVID-19 pandemic. (Pexels)

ANN ARBOR – As overwhelmed healthcare systems across the country continue to grapple with COVID-19, thousands of cancer patients have had surgeries and other treatments postponed during the health crisis. In some cases, these delays may last for months.

In an effort to understand long term risk a patient may face from postponement of treatment and the additional risk posed by contracting COVID-19 if they were to undergo medical treatment, a team of cancer doctors and data scientists at University of Michigan’s Rogel Cancer Center and School of Public Health have developed a free, web-based application to assess such risks.

Drawing on large, national cancer data sets, the OncCOVID app helps assess what risks a patient faces from receiving immediate treatment versus delayed treatment based on their individual characteristics. The app also takes into consideration the impact of COVID-19 on that individual’s local community.

“For many types of cancer, the data show delays in treatment lead to worse outcomes for patients,” Holly Hartman, the project’s lead researcher, said in a news release. “But each time a cancer patient goes to the hospital to receive care, they’re also putting themselves at higher risk of contracting COVID-19. So, it’s essential to balance the need for treatment for this very serious disease and the extra risk that COVID-19 poses for cancer patients, whose immune systems are often compromised.”

The research team hopes that OncCOVID will be used by doctors to determine which patients are at greatest risk of contracting COVID-19 and for whom that risk is outweighed by the benefits of urgent treatment.

“We also see the app providing additional reassurance to oncologists and their patients when the data show that delaying treatment will likely have little or no impact on a patient’s long-term outcome,” Hartman added in a news release.

Associate professor of radiation oncology at Michigan Medicine Daniel Spratt added that OncCOVID could also be used to help prioritize a backlog of patients whose treatment was delayed due to the pandemic as health systems ramp services back up.

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“Hospitals have basically been using a three-tiered system during COVID: treat, delay a little, or delay a lot,” Spratt said in a news release. “Unfortunately, this tiered system is an extremely blunt instrument. Our goal was to create a resource that could be tailored both to the individual patient and to their local community.”

Doctors can enter more than 45 characteristics -- including age, location, cancer type and stage -- about a patient and receive a calculation on the patient’s likely five-year survival if they receive immediate treatment and delayed treatment.

The researchers caution that the app is not intended to provide patients with medical advice. A series of factors may contribute to the decision by a care provider to recommend delaying or proceeding with cancer treatment, including their capacity to treat local cancer patients safely during the pandemic.