Ian Bolland caught up with Venetia Wynter-Blyth, nurse and co-founder, Onko, a provider of unified cancer care, to talk about how its technology and model aims to improve outcomes, and a patient’s overall health.
Tell us more about Onko – how did the idea to start the company come about?
Cancer is one of the greatest health challenges of the 21st Century and its incidence is set to nearly double by 2030. 380,000 new cancer cases are diagnosed in the UK every year and there are 4 million cancer survivors today.
Until now the focus has largely been directed towards treating the cancer, often at the expense of the individual’s overall health. We launched Onko in 2019 because we recognised a need to look at overall health and cancer treatment equally. Our work in this space over many years has taught us that this approach has significant health benefits, including better tolerance to oncology treatment, fewer post-operative complications and most importantly a lower risk of cancer recurrence and long-term morbidity.
Current models of health improvement generally take place in local hospitals or gyms. This not only has an added hassle factor when people are already making multiple trips to the hospital, but now, as a result of COVID-19, carries additional risk.
Onko uses app-based technology to provide health improvement programmes to people in the comfort of their home. Programmes are tailored to the individual and address someone’s physical, nutritional and emotional needs equally. Most importantly we don’t lose the human interaction – ongoing support and motivation are provided through a personal coach at every step of the journey.
We are fortunate to have a fantastic team of healthcare professionals who are able to provide centralised, integrated expertise, and the technology enables this service to be available to everyone, irrespective of their location or where they are being treated.
What kind of model do you adopt?
Onko adopts a human and machine model of care delivery. Human interaction is still fundamental to caring for people with cancer but technology makes the interaction much more personalised, responsive and streamlined. Care and support are delivered at the point of greatest need with allocation of resources to those who need it most.
Can you give us as much insight into the technological aspects of the solution as possible?
We use app-based technology and wearables to help people track, understand and modify their health behaviours. We also have some exciting developments in the pipeline including access to personalised information and digital support groups.
The technology enables us to collate data and refine our approach in a way that is even more meaningful for the individual. For example, we hope, in the not too distant future, to deliver a truly customised experience; people will receive different messaging and optics according to their health profile.
Recently, you were awarded an Innovate UK grant, can you give us some insight as to how you aim to use that?
The Innovate grant will enable us to integrate the Onko app into cancer pathways within the NHS. At a technology level we will assess user interactions with the digital programme and inter-operability of the app with wearable technology. At a patient level we will explore adherence to health behaviours and assess improvements in health metrics, including physical fitness and psychological wellbeing.
This project is an opportunity to test, calibrate and adapt our technology, gather learning and data while at the same time address a significant health and societal need.
What do you think of the current technological solutions available in the UK for cancer care?
Despite the fact that scientific advances have come on in leaps and bounds, the infrastructure and the way we treat patients is still largely reactive and compartmentalised. COVID-19 in many ways has been a catalyst for change within the NHS in this regard; never before has technology played such an important role in supporting patient healthcare.
But technology cannot replace the need for human interaction and empathy. It can certainly make the patient/therapist interaction much more efficient and responsive, and can facilitate resources to be allocated to those who need it most when they need it.
There are a number of apps that help patients document their health, mood, activity, and symptoms. These are great if you are inherently motivated, able to interpret the data and keep pushing forward. If you’re not, however, then their application and benefit is limited.
Onko, however, was developed by a group of us who have worked in cancer for many years and came together because we knew there had to be a better way. We wanted to design a system that was inclusive and put patients in the driving seat. We knew from experience that the cancer journey can be tough – it has peaks and troughs and it is hard to stay motivated throughout. That’s why having the human element as an integral part of our offering is so important. We want to support people through the lows and celebrate the highs.
What further plans do you have for Onko? Can it be diversified and used to treat other conditions for example?
Absolutely – the great thing about this approach is that the principles can readily be applied to other specialties.
In fact, we are currently working with Imperial to develop a risk-stratified approach to pre-operative health improvement in a number of specialities other than cancer. Health improvement is a great way for people to get ready for surgery and enable them to become active partners in their care.