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With Great Health Comes Great Responsibility

Accountability. As children, we are taught that our actions have consequences and that we must be responsible for our own behaviors if we are to live as free and independent adults.

Linda Barlow

Linda Barlow

This simple life lesson has been shaping the healthcare landscape for some time now as hospitals, individual clinicians and other healthcare providers face increasing requirements to participate in Accountable Care Organizations and provide performance measures indicating accountability for patient outcomes—efforts that have successfully improved the quality of care for many. But what about the patients themselves?

“The greatest untapped resource in healthcare is the patient,” says Don Kemper, MPH, Founder and CEO of Healthwise, a non-profit organization with a mission to help people make better health decisions. “The time has come for people to ask more of themselves in managing their health.”

According to the authors of a report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Performance Measures, patient participation and engagement are integral to the success of any treatment plan–a position echoed by the American Medical Association and the Institute of Medicine.

So how can we, as consumers of healthcare services, be more accountable for our own care? The authors of the ACC/AHA report suggest that “the general framework of shared accountability is predicated on partnerships between patients and clinicians, in which patients play an active role in setting goals, making treatment decisions and assessing outcomes. Ideally, patients would be aware of what to watch for, contact their clinicians when symptoms arise, learn about their condition and what they can do to improve their health, implement agreed-on treatment plans and lifestyle changes, and follow up with their clinicians to assess outcomes and adjust the treatment plan.”

“Developing a trusted relationship is key,” adds Nancy Carteron, M.D., HealthWell board member, rheumatologies, and autoimmune disease specialist at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco and Associate Clinical Professor at the University of California at San Francisco. “Patients need to feel heard, but from a physician’s standpoint, the limited time they have with patients can make that hard to accomplish, especially for complex illnesses. It may require the provider to restructure its practice. And if the patient does not feel their best interest is being served, they should try another provider or system.”

Healthwise’s Kemper suggests that patients focus on “patienthood”—the self-management behavior that ensures we either give to ourselves or get from others the care we need to best manage our health risks and medical problems.

“Each of us falls somewhere on the continuum of patienthood,” Kemper says. “The extremes can range from annual tooth brushing to self-surgery, but most of us fall well in the middle. And for most of us, it’s possible to do more for ourselves, especially with the right information, tools and expectations.”

“We should feel accountable for asking questions anytime we don’t understand our options, anytime we think something may not be right with our care, and anytime we have an idea for how we might contribute to the care,” Kemper adds. “And we should be accountable for adhering to any self-care plan we have agreed to follow—or to report why we have veered away from it.”

Are you someone who has started to take more personal accountability for your own care? Tell us what you’ve done to be a healthier, more involved patient. Are you a healthcare provider who has seen an improvement in patient outcomes when the patient is highly involved in his or her own care? Share your stories with us in the comments section.

Need a Doctor? There’s about a Hundred Apps for That

Remember when the only personal device people had to monitor their health was the trusty old bathroom scale, and maybe a blood pressure cuff they could use at their local pharmacy? What a difference a decade makes.

Linda Barlow

Linda Barlow

An explosion of personal, wearable, or otherwise easily accessible devices and apps used to track activity and fitness levels, monitor health problems, and even diagnose disease is well underway. In fact, more than 360 health and biotech (and nearly 390 fitness and sports) apps and products were exhibited at January’s International CES® in Las Vegas, including a new wave of trackers, online tools, wristbands and apps that collect your vital signs for medical purposes.

“Consumers now have more of an opportunity than ever to take control of their own health through technology,” says Kinsey Fabrizio, director, Member Engagement, Consumer Electronics Association (CEA)®. “There is a real convergence of technology in health and wellness, and with design advancements, improving tech and widespread adoption of mobile devices, consumer-centric care is now possible.”

According to Ms. Fabrizio, one of the hottest trends in personal health and fitness technology is devices that link to smartphones. One example of such a device is a fertility sensor from CES exhibitor Prima-Temp: a self-inserted, wireless temperature sensor that continuously and passively tracks a woman’s core body temperature, detecting the subtle changes that occur before ovulation, then sends an alert to her smartphone when she is most fertile. According to the company, understanding reproductive health and natural fertility signs can help couples avoid costly infertility treatments.

Another example comes from another CES exhibitor, Qardio: a wireless blood pressure monitor that offers a full year of battery life for 400 measurements versus the 80 available in typical monitors. The company claims the device—compatible with both iOS and Android—is the only wireless monitor that can track irregular heartbeats over time, providing users with warnings that they should consider contacting a doctor if the irregularity continues.

Wearable technology like fitness trackers, smart watches, and even pain relief technology also took center stage at CES. During a CES presentation, “The Potential of Wearable Technology,” CEA Director of Business Intelligence, Jack Cutts, pointed out that fitness trackers, “have made wearable tech mainstream, and that the newest generation of smart watches are more refined and are becoming the go-to wearable device.” Looking to the future, he said “other wearable technologies, such as smart fabrics and implantable devices, are still being explored.”

Ms. Fabrizio notes that healthcare technology also has become critical to aging in place, as evidenced by several exhibitors highlighting “lifelong tech” solutions that help seniors stay in touch electronically with providers, family members, emergency responders and other caregivers. One example is CES exhibitor MobileHelp, a mobile medical alert system that uses GPS medical alarm location technology to pinpoint the user’s exact location, so the closest available emergency responders are dispatched no matter where the user travels.

Some in the healthcare field—including attendees of CES’s Digital Health Conference—have raised concerns, not only about the privacy of patient data as it streams through the Internet and resides in the cloud, but also that people’s reliance on health and medical devices and apps will push the professional healthcare practitioner out of the equation. Some worry that no self-diagnosis technology can replace the in-person treatment available at a practitioner’s office, while others point to the ability of technology to increase the value and productivity of physicians.

Ms. Fabrizio adds that device and app makers are looking to help shape the future of digital health with products people can access easily. To that end, CEA, which represents 2,000 companies, formed a Health and Fitness Technology Division last year. The goal of the Division is to raise consumer awareness of how consumer electronic devices can help improve health and fitness as well as help manufacturers navigate the marketing, regulatory and myriad other challenges facing this nascent marketing segment.

“These CEA members are making products that are seamless with what people already do,” Ms. Fabrizio concludes. “They are more than fun; they provide valuable data that drives healthier behavior and preventive health benefits.”

Are consumer apps and devices for tracking health and fitness helping you improve your health? Share your opinion in the comments section.

Tough Choices Await ACA Exchange Applicants

Linda Barlow

Linda Barlow

After more than two decades of being covered under employer-sponsored medical plans, my consultant husband and I (a freelance writer) are now in the position of having to purchase our own health coverage.

We both have found the online Health Insurance Marketplace fairly easy to navigate. After entering our zip code and ages, a list of available plans pops up. This list can be sorted either by monthly premium or by deductible, making it easy to see estimated costs at a glance. This is where the tough choices start.

HMO, PPO or POS? A higher monthly premium and lower deductible, or a lower monthly premium with a higher deductible? Choose a plan that our current health care providers accept or try a new plan and find new providers? What about drug coverage and doctor visit co-pays?

For millions of previously uninsured Americans who will enter the Marketplace for the first time and will subsequently find themselves underinsured, these choices can represent possible unseen financial hurdles. That’s because, while the ACA does a great job of providing health care for people who previously had been uninsured, it does not address the continued financial pressure on the underinsured.

As Aaron E. Carroll, professor of Pediatrics, Indiana University School of Medicine, points out in a recent New York Times column, the ACA may actually be helping to spread the problem of underinsurance. The point of having insurance, he says, is to be able to get care when you need it, without too large a financial burden. Underinsured Americans – while in a better position than the uninsured – are not receiving this benefit though and can’t get the care they need, according to Carroll.

One is considered underinsured if his or her out-of-pocket health care costs exceed 10 percent of income (5 percent when income is less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level), or when one’s insurance deductible is more than 5 percent of income. According to a 2014 survey conducted by the Commonwealth Fund, 13 percent of insured Americans fall into this category.

What happens when the newly insured become the newly underinsured? Although they now have access to preventive care and other services, many – two out of five according to the Commonwealth Fund survey – delayed needed care because of unaffordable deductibles. They did not go to the doctor when sick, did not get a preventive care test, skipped a recommended follow-up test or did not get needed specialty care. Unfortunately, these cost pressures hit hardest among those who need care the most, as people with chronic health problems are more likely to spend large shares of their income on medical costs not covered by their insurance than insured adults in better health.

Choosing a health plan can be complicated, no matter what your income level or health situation. Fortunately, the Health Insurance Marketplace offers tips on how to choose a plan, taking into account plan category, monthly premiums, out-of-pocket costs, type of insurance plan and provider network and benefits. This may be a good place to start. Other tips are available from Consumer Reports.

“The Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum categories within the ACA provide some clarity in the purchasing process,” says Bryan E. Neely, President, HR Ally. “Individuals should purchase insurance first by cost/affordability, then by benefits including copays and deductibles. Many Americans are finding that they actually qualify for Medicaid, especially in those states where Medicaid has been expanded per the ACA.”

In addition to cost pressures, the newly insured/underinsured may find it difficult to receive care as some providers place caps on the number of new patients they will take on in order to manage their workload – a problem that will become more acute in the face of a looming shortage of primary doctors.

Nobody yet knows what the full impact will be of the ACA on the ability of health care providers to improve health outcomes among underinsured Americans. But it is an issue that bears watching. Let us know what you think in the comments section.

Truth in Labeling: Your Vending Machine Is about to Guide Your Diet

Vanessa Merta

Vanessa Merta

Does menu labeling cause consumers to make healthier choices? The U.S. Food and Drug Administration thinks so.

A few weeks ago, the FDA finalized two regulations that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act mandated in 2010.  The announcement issued on November 25, 2014 requires calorie information be listed on menus and menu boards in chain restaurants, similar retail food establishments with 20 or more locations and vending machines.

Consumers should begin to notice the difference as soon as next year since restaurants and vending machines need to comply with the law before December 2015.

FDA Commissioner, Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, said that this regulation is an “important step for public health that will help consumers make informed choices for themselves and their families.”

While this federal regulation was announced just a few weeks ago, many restaurants have used self-imposed calorie information guidance on their own for years. The first company to voluntarily post calorie counts in all of their locations was Panera Bread in 2010.  Starbucks and other chains have been labeling calories since April 2008, but only in New York City stores, as required by a NYC law.

While the FDA’s intentions are to improve public health, individuals and groups such as the Center for Consumer Freedoms have raised some concerns.  Do calorie counts on menus actually cause consumers to eat healthier? Will increased information on nutrition hurt revenue for the business? Researchers in many different fields have been looking for the answers.

Stanford Graduate School of Business studied New York City Starbucks and the effects that calorie labeling had on consumer behaviors as well as the impact on revenue.

The study found that customers whose average purchase was over 250 calories decreased by 26 percent. Stanford researchers concluded that posting calorie counts on menu boards does, in fact, affect consumer behavior.

Stanford also concluded that Starbucks revenues were not affected by the calorie-posting requirement. However, for Starbucks stores located within 50 meters of a competitor, calorie-postings led to an increase in Starbucks revenue.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, one of the world’s largest philanthropies devoted to public health, conducted a four-year research review on the effects that menu labeling has on the average consumer.  Over the course of this long-term review, they found that labeling wasn’t only something that the average consumer wanted, but that it reduces the amount of calories per transaction, and in some cases causes restaurants to offer healthier, lower-calorie options.

Opponents to menu labeling such as U.S. House of Representatives Blaine Leutkemeyer (R-Mo.), Sam Graves (R-Mo.), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio), signed a letter proposing pamphlets with calorie counts be available next to menus, rather than posted.  Both studies said that the consumer rarely seeks out nutrition information outside the point of purchase.  The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation study claimed that customers see menu labels at the point of purchase and those labels increase their awareness of nutritional information, effectively educating the consumer better than a website or pamphlet could.

Do you think this mandate will change your eating habits or do you think that online nutritional information is sufficient now? Let us know how you feel about this new rule in the comments section!

 

Categories: General

A Proper Diagnosis Shouldn’t Require a Doctor Scavenger Hunt. Here Are Tips to Help Your Doctor Find an Answer

Vanessa Merta

Vanessa Merta

Have you or someone you know been passed from doctor to doctor without a resulting diagnosis? According to Tufts University School of Medicine, the prevalence of undiagnosed diseases is significant, even for common chronic diseases.  A disease as common as depression, which is estimated to effect two to four percent of Americans, is missed in a staggering 69 percent of patients who seek help!  Other chronic diseases that often go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed include diabetes, dementia, and osteoporosis.

The good news is that there are actions you or a loved one can take to help your doctor get to the bottom of the problem quicker, according to the Center for Advancing Health.

What to do if the Doctor Just Shrugs,” offers patients ten tips on what they can do when doctors are unable to come up with a diagnosis. Check out this interesting read and let us know what you think.  Have you or a loved one ever tried any of these suggestions? Tell us your experience in the comments section!

 

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Patient of the Month: The Most Beautiful Sunrise – One Grandmother’s Story of Survival

Lois and her husband

Lois and her husband

Working 10 hour shifts as a registered nurse in North Liberty, Iowa, Lois Ludvigson did not think much about feeling tired. All of that changed one December morning in 1998, which Lois remembers had – as she put it – the most beautiful sunrise.

The rest of the day was different, however. She had just had her yearly physical, and the results of her bloodwork had come in. When Lois’ doctor put her arm around her and led her into a room, empty except for her husband, she knew this was not about a hospital patient. Lois remembers how it felt hearing her doctor explain to her the different treatment options.

“You’ve just got to go with the shock,” Lois remembers, “It’s so unreal.”

Lois’ doctors – her coworkers and friends – had already planned her appointments out for her, starting with her bone biopsy. On New Year’s Eve, it was confirmed: she had chronic myeloid leukemia.

Lois decided that an interferon treatment would be the best option for her. This type of treatment, which according to Lois is rarely used today, involves the injection of a family of substances used by the immune system to fight diseases. The injections – which Lois gave herself – were affective at slowing the growth and division of leukemia cells, but had significant side-effects for her. After building up a tolerance to the drug, she started displaying flu- and lupus-like symptoms. After having a seizure, her doctor directed her to stop using the drug immediately. At her doctor’s behest, Lois sought out various clinical trials in hopes of finding a new treatment for her condition. Upon calling Stanford University, researchers said they wanted to see her in-person.

Having flown to California for testing, Lois was put on the experimental drug the next day. She continued to send Stanford blood every month and visit Stanford every three months. After the drug got approval and went on the market, took part in a further study there to help with their research in any way she could, which included sending blood to them every three months.

Now that the drug was on the market, though, Lois knew she would have to start paying for it herself. Her insurance covered the interferon treatments, but the new drug was very expensive. So expensive, in fact, that Lois told her husband she simply could not be treated. This was not an option, he replied, and after finding out about the HealthWell Foundation, Lois received a grant that covered the cost of the drug she needed to survive.

“I felt humble, and I still do. I think about the grant and what we would have done without it,” Lois said. “My heart goes out to people who don’t know about it, who are struggling, and I just feel humble.”

Since starting the treatment in September of 2000, Lois’ numbers have been stable. Though her condition still affects her, Lois says she’s come to terms with it.

“You have your little nuisances, not feeling well, feeling fatigue. But, you learn to live with them,” she said. “You learn to ask, ‘Is this worth feeling tired afterwards?’ and if I say yes, I’ll do it. That’s my choice, and I might have to rest the next week after. You learn to live your life differently, but it’s still a full life.”

Nowadays, aside from taking care of her health, Lois sews quilts with a group from her church, all of which are donated to children in hospitals.

“I feel so blessed that I can give back in this way,” Lois said. “Aside from enjoying my children, my grandchildren, my family, that’s my purpose.”

Has leukemia affected your life? How so? Let us know in the comment section.

Inspiring Older Patients to Seek Online Communities: How the National Osteoporosis Foundation Engages Over 19,000 Middle-Aged and Senior Women and Men

David Sheon

David Sheon

By David Sheon

 

When it comes to talking about health, online communities are turning shades of gray.

Websites hosting online patient communities, such as Inspire.com, are bringing seniors together on a common platform where they can learn about their condition from other patients in similar situations.  Inspire offers discussion forums where patients can communicate to fulfill scientific, emotional, and practical needs regarding their medical conditions.

What sets Inspire apart from other online disease communities is the partnerships that it creates with condition-specific patient advocacy groups, including the National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF), which works with Inspire to offer credible information and to deliver timely research and news of interest to the community of osteoporosis patients.

NOF is the nation’s only health organization dedicated specifically to promoting bone health.  NOF takes a strong stance on bringing awareness to the fact that one in two women, and one in four men over the age of 50 will have an osteoporotic fracture.  NOF informs the patient community and key opinion leaders that fractures caused without blunt force, such as the result of a car accident, typically are the result of low bone density.  NOF hopes to turn the tide of bone fractures from osteoporosis by raising awareness of prevention and treatment options.

Brian Loew and Claire Gill at the 2014 Patient Centricity and Advocacy Summit

Brian Loew and Claire Gill at the 2014 Patient Centricity and Advocacy Summit 

In their September 29th presentation at the World Congress Summit on Patient Centricity and Advocacy, Alexandria, Virginia, Brian Loew, CEO of Inspire, and Claire Gill, Senior Director of Marketing and Consumer and Corporate Outreach of NOF spoke of the successes that have come from their partnership, noting the dynamic growth of the osteoporosis community on Inspire.com.  The community has over 19,000 members, with about 500 new users every month.  Posted surveys and hot topics drive engagement.

“We check everyday online, answer questions, [and] send information,” said Ms. Gill. “We’ve never had a need to stimulate conversations.  There’s a robust dialogue on every imaginable topic.”

Osteoporosis patients are holding the majority of these conversations, with some contribution coming from family members and caregivers.  Because of the age of appearance of most bone-related diseases, these patients are usually over the age of 55.

According to Loew, “the online tax of usability for elderly people is either gone or dramatically diminished.”

“We know the age of new users on Facebook is older, and the growth of the online community is further proof that older users are here to stay,” said Gill.

Gill related her experience with this community’s adaptability to the Internet when NOF eliminated the option to immediately speak to an operator by telephone. Now, upon calling NOF, patients are directed to the website.  After the change was implemented, the site’s page views jumped from 60,000 to 100,000 per month, according to Gill. Callers could leave a message if they prefer, and would later be contacted.  Instead, many chose to go online.

The partnership between Inspire and NOF shows that middle-aged and senior patients are turning in record numbers to online communities to manage their health.  Does this surprise you? Would you recommend Inspire to a patient with osteoporosis that you know?

How New Apps and Technology Create a New Central Nervous System for MS Patients: A Look at the Current State of Online Disease Management

By Vanessa Merta, Science Blogger

RWHC Writer Pic-2

Vanessa Merta

With over two million people suffering from multiple sclerosis and a cure for the debilitating autoimmune disease remaining illusive, patients are using new technologies to improve how they manage the disease. By leveraging web-based technologies and smart phones, patients have new weapons to improve their symptom management by collaborating with other patients and access care more easily.

Websites such as www.PatientsLikeMe.com play a supportive role by helping patients understand and manage their disease, and track potential outcomes. Patients use the website to connect with other patients to track symptoms, relapses, and medication results. By entering these data, patients not only learn more about managing their illness, they also help scientists and doctors use the data for research.

In a recent TedxTalk, PatientsLikeMe President, Ben Heywood, spoke of the growing MS community, currently at over 25,000 active users on the site. “You can see what it’s like to have MS,” said Mr. Heywood. “Symptoms in real-time of thousands and thousands of patients [are captured],” analyzed for trends, and help inform researchers in ways that may expedite a cure.

These widespread patient histories may prove to be helpful to drug developers because they can see what symptoms are not well managed, in the hopes of creating a goal for a future drug. With the knowledge of medication success rates, researchers can see if any drugs have the potential to be improved, or if they should be forgotten all together. Before websites like PatientsLikeMe.com, obtaining this kind of information was nearly impossible.

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When patients are on the go and don’t have access to a computer, smart phone applications offer welcome help. Patients have their entire health history with them at all times with apps such as the MS Association of America’s Multiple Sclerosis Self-Care Manager. Patients track mood and symptoms in a journal, and record whether or not they’ve taken their medications on schedule. In emergency situations, MS Self-Care Manager helps find physicians or hospitals with a Google-Map powered locator. The app makes doctor’s appointments more productive due to immediate access to lab results, and a record of all symptoms since the patient’s last visit.

Medical technology is trying to lessen the burden that an MS diagnosis may bring. Resources for patients are continuing to improve with the development of smart phone apps and online sites where patients can collaborate.

Technology has created its own version of a central nervous system by building a patient community with dynamic connectivity. Helping patients to manage symptoms by improving hand-held technology has become a reality for tens of thousands of MS patients. Until we have a cure or advances in medicine, these simple programs offer real benefits.

Tell us what you think about symptom tracking and online disease management. Have you put any of these products to good use?

Categories: General

New App Makes Diabetes Care Delivery a Whole New Ballgame

A father brings his son to a baseball game. The day is nice, the weather is good, but there’s one problem: the boy has Type 1 diabetes, and they forgot his test strips. Do they leave the game for home or a pharmacy? Do they wing it, risking the boy’s health and trying to manage his blood sugar with his diet?

Nathan Sheon

Actually, they opt for the third choice: HelpAround, a mobile safety net for people with diabetes. The
man can pull out his phone, see that there is another diabetes patient two sections down, and ask for the supplies his son needs. With that, the day is saved.

A story like that is how HelpAround began. Established in 2013, HelpAround was designed to bring people with diabetes together in a common space to provide not just peer-to-peer support, but peer-to-peer care as well. Using new mobile technology, the app provides a highly personalized account of treatment needs and matches patients accordingly with other patients who have similar needs.

According to Yishai Knobel, CEO and co-founder of HelpAround, the service fills in what is otherwise a gray area of diabetes treatment. People with diabetes face a large spectrum of constant health concerns that vary widely in severity. Not having test strips, for instance, might not warrant going to the hospital, but can be very serious for patients who need to constantly monitor their health. With an app like this to fall back on, according to Knobel, people with diabetes are able to live more normal lives knowing that they can get the help they need whenever they need it. “People with chronic conditions have so much going on, on top of their everyday lives,” he said. “Creating this social safety net is really something valuable.”

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Did you know that September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month? One way to help pediatric cancer patients and their families who are faced with a devastating medical emergency is to donate to HealthWell Foundation’s Pediatric Assistance fund.  Click here to learn more and donate to help families in need.

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HelpAround also provides a less tangible but equally important factor for its patients: a sense of belonging to a community. Though he did not want to disclose numbers, Knobel said that in the early stages of the app’s launch, 85% of requests for help received a response. For people with chronic conditions, knowing that there is a dedicated support base by patients and for patients is invaluable.

“Connecting the right people at the right time in a system can create a wonderful moment of empowerment, support and comradery,” Knobel said.

With use of the app growing, patient groups for other chronic diseases have also begun to discuss using technology like this. With communication technology advancing and a growing call for more patient-centered solutions to health issues, Knobel believes that technologies like HelpAround will allow patients to manage their own health needs more efficiently.  Perhaps most important, the app helps patients stay compliant with their treatment schedule.

“We want to really give the patient a full support system, (helping them) on the go, focusing on their needs, to better manage their health care,” Knobel said.

Have you ever used HelpAround or a similar technology? What was your experience? What does this mean for the future of care-delivery and treatment compliance? Let us know in the comment section!

Categories: Access to Care, General

UV Safety Month: Shedding Light on Melanoma Treatment and Prevention

In 2014, an approximate 77,000 Americans will be diagnosed with melanoma, culminating in nearly 10,000 deaths. Every eight minutes, an American is diagnosed with melanoma, and every hour, an American dies from it. Despite accounting for only four percent of all skin cancer cases, melanoma results in 80 percent of all skin cancer-related deaths. In observance of UV Safety Month, Real World Health Care is examining what’s working and what’s new in the prevention and treatment of melanoma.

photo (1)

Nathan Sheon

If detected early, melanoma is easily treated with surgery. If a tumor in the epidermis – the upper-most layer of skin – is removed before it deepens into the skin or spreads to other parts of the body, the likelihood of completely curing melanoma is high. When melanoma spreads, other treatment options include chemo- and radiation therapy.

Once melanoma has progressed to its later stages, however, treatment of the disease becomes much more difficult. For these patients, treatment options usually focus on extending life expectancy and improving quality of life.

Within the last few years, developments in melanoma research have provided promising leads on how to increase a patient’s lifespan beyond the capabilities of existing treatments. Certain activation immunotherapies – drugs that activate the immune system’s ability to fight disease – are showing potential in their ability to combat the spread of melanoma by killing tumors. Though these treatments do not work in all melanoma patients, in some cases they have been associated with unprecedented increases in lifespan.

“All of these trials involve late stage cancer patients. Suddenly we’re seeing those same patients getting two years or more survival time,” said Ashani Weeraratna of the Wistar Institute, the nation’s first independent institution devoted to medical research and training. “Enhancing the immune system such that it can effectively target and destroy your tumor has been a goal for many years. That’s [the field’s] big advance.”

Melanoma is almost always curable when detected and treated early on. Monthly self-examinations and yearly visits to the dermatologist are highly advised, even for those not predisposed to skin cancers. More information on how to perform a self-examination can be found online in guides from the Skin Cancer Foundation and the Melanoma Research Foundation.

Among other important measures like self-examinations and avoiding tanning booths, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) advises that wearing sunscreen when spending time outdoors is vital, especially during peak daylight hours between 10 AM to 2 PM. The AAD suggests using sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or above. With a range of sunscreen products on the market, choosing the right one can be difficult. Different products are more effective for different people depending on skin type. Visit the Skin Cancer Foundation’s guide for more information on choosing the right sunscreen product for you. For more information and tips on preventing and detecting melanoma, visit the AAD’s online guide.

How do you stay safe in the sun? Let us know in the comments section.

*Jamie Elizabeth Rosen, editor of Real World Health Care, contributed to this piece.