Study: Fitbits, specially-stocked iPads may improve quality of life for young people with cancer

By Jonah Comstock
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A prospective cohort study of 33 adolescent cancer patients suggests that providing a Fitbit activity tracker and an iPad equipped with specialized health apps at the time of diagnosis can increase at least subjective measures of quality of life.

In the study, recently published in the Journal of Adolescent and Young Adult Oncology, patients at Stanford Hospital and Clinics and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital were offered a free Fitbit and iPad after a new cancer diagnosis.

The Fitbit was set up to track sleep and steps, with a calorie tracking option. In addition to the Fitbit software, the iPad was loaded with meditation app Headspace and Re-Mission 2, a suite of games specifically designed for young cancer patients. It also contained educational material. Patients were instructed on using the Fitbit and the apps, and were permitted to download additional apps as well.

Patients were asked to fill out surveys at the beginning of the intervention and again after six months or at the end of therapy. Thirty-three patients returned surveys at the end of the six-month period, out of 44 that filled out the initial survey. The surveys included the RAND-36, a standardized assessment tool for quality of life measurement, as well as a short survey designed specifically for the intervention.

Eighty-five percent of patients reported enjoying the Fitbit device and 79 percent said it made them more active. Eighteen percent said their activity level didn’t change. No patient reported being less active.

“Our outcomes were based on subjective assessments of physical activity, as we did not set out the study design asking for participants’ actual step counts,” researchers wrote. “It is possible that subjective reports of physical activity do not correlate exactly with objective activity data, and we believe it may be beneficial for future researchers to track objective data from the start to determine if subjective and objective measures correlate.”

The biggest reason for not wearing the Fitbit, recorded by a fifth of participants, was forgetting to charge the device.

As for the apps, Headspace was the most popular with 58 percent of patients reporting use of the meditation app. Twenty-seven percent used Re-Mission 2 and just 12 percent accessed the educational materials.

The RAND study showed improvement between the first and second survey across all eight domains of health-related quality of life that the survey is designed to measure, with a mean power of 0.83.

“Overall, our results suggest that distributing wearable technology to patients newly diagnosed with cancer can be one way to increase physical activity and quality of life,” researchers wrote.