Going Digital: How Massey Cancer Center Expanded Data Collection for Cancer Research

By Dr. Bernard Fuemmeler, Associate Director, Cancer Prevention and Control, Massey Cancer Center, Virginia Commonwealth University
Twitter: @VCUMassey
Twitter: @VCU

At Virginia Commonwealth University’s (VCU) Massey Cancer Center, we make it our responsibility to provide the best possible care to our patients. We are one of only two designated cancer centers in the state of Virginia and take pride in providing care to both our immediate community and anyone that walks through our doors seeking help.

This commitment to patients includes a constant effort to improve our research capabilities. That’s why in early 2019 we created the Together for Health – Virginia program, an innovative digital health research initiative that leveraged funding from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to study the social, behavioral, and environmental factors in our area that may lead to cancer.

Our goal was to survey current and past cancer patients as well as interested volunteers. We mailed a paper-based, 240-question, seven-part survey to all interested parties across a 62-county area that encompassed most of the state of Virginia.

As my fellow researchers surely know, it was a struggle to get sufficient participation with a survey of this magnitude. We knew we needed to modernize our methods and go digital.

Shifting to Digital Recruiting and Data Capture

We began the process by setting goals for our technology overhaul and framing up what we wanted to accomplish. We wanted to upgrade our data capture process, improve response, increase diversity, recruit more underrepresented populations in distributed geographies. We partnered with Vibrent Health, a leader in digital health technologies for participant recruiting and data capture processes for research organizations.

Our goal was not simply to put our study online, but digitize our processes to collect patient data, expand our reach, and create an e-cohort of participants. We implemented a team-based approach to create an infrastructure that allowed for both agility and future growth. Vibrent’s platform offered digital marketing, communication tools, analytics, dashboards, and population and engagement tools.

As a result, the Together for Health – Virginia program has seen a dramatic improvement in the recruitment of participants, leading to more data for our researchers. We believe digital recruitment and data capture will provide more complete data for historically disadvantaged populations, allowing us to tailor healthcare treatments to those previously overlooked.

Creating the e-cohort provided us with a way to directly communicate with participants. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early 2020 we were able to reach out directly to our e-cohort to answer a separate set of questions about the virus. We reached members through email and SMS messaging to improve engagement. We also were able to acquire e-consent from patients at the university’s institutional review board’s request to ensure adherence to ethical data collection requirements.

Moving Toward a Digital Future

Paper surveys remain the standard for conducting research – and there will always be people who prefer them – but this experience has shown us the potential benefits of digitizing data collection. Without the move to digital, we would not have received nearly the number of responses. This increased data will help us to make more informed decisions on the health solutions we provide our patients while also creating opportunities for future research. At the Massey Cancer Center, we are already evaluating ways to create more targeted outreach through online and social media channels to recruit more study participants.

The conversion to digital set up our organizations with the structure, tools, and processes to expand the Together for Health – Virginia program as our needs change, and also incorporates this structure into other projects.

While a digital solution may not be right for every initiative, it certainly will have a place in our research strategy going forward.

As with any major change, the shift to digital brought unexpected challenges, but the results speak for themselves. Our to digital gave us the ability to realize a new level of success and capabilities we will employ for future programs.

In the coming months, we plan to further improve our process and publish a peer-reviewed study to further detail our findings. Our initial results, though, show amazing promise, and with this data, we can improve how we care for our patients and serve our community.