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UNC Lineberger’s William Wood, MD, MPH, is leading research into how digital, wearable technology and virtual coaching can make a difference in cancer patients’ well-being.

Through this work, Wood, a cancer researcher, hematologist-oncologist and associate professor in the UNC School of Medicine, wants to answer a driving question: What’s the best way to measure, track, and support the lived experience of patients with cancer – continuously, outside the hospital and clinic?

Previously, he launched a study using symptom tracking and wearable sensors to track bone marrow transplant patients’ physical condition over time, and observed key relationships between symptoms, physical function, and wearable sensor data.

His work builds on an existing body of research that has shown a patient’s underlying physical function is related to survival, quality of life, hospitalizations and emergency room visits.

William Wood
UNC Lineberger’s William Wood, MD, MPH.

In a new project, Wood will connect patients remotely with a health coach to use virtually-delivered exercise programs designed to improve patients’ physical function and cancer outcomes, while tracking their progress using connected sensors.

Through this initiative, Wood and his team also want to provide an extra layer of support for patients who might be socially isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Understanding the patient perspective

Wood’s work is motivated by a desire to understand the patient experience in order to ultimately improve it.

“We have an opportunity to intervene on otherwise incurable diseases and potentially cure them,” Wood said. “On the other hand, we also know that our treatments can have a lot of side effects and toxicities. I became very interested in understanding what that was like from a patient perspective and doing what I could to have an impact to relieve suffering.”

Wood is a national leader in the digital health field. He is on the strategic advisory board of the Digital Medicine Society, a professional society founded to promote best practices for researchers using wearable sensor devices in research and practice.

“We are learning, and we know that we have to be thoughtful in the way that we acquire and analyze these data to make sure that we understand their quality, understand the aspects that are relevant to human health, and that we understand the best ways to use these devices in research and practice,” he said.

A career in healing

We spoke with Wood about his digital health research and path into medicine.

What do you love about your position at UNC Lineberger?

I love that I can have the best of both worlds.

I’m able to help provide care for patients with cancer, including those undergoing transplants, and establishing relationships with patients in doing so is extremely fulfilling. Part of the clinical work is involved in areas where the science is moving really quickly. I have the opportunity to learn about and integrate innovative technologies to help improve survival and quality of life in patients with cancer. I love that part of the job.

I also love that the job allows me to participate in developing new programs and designing research to improve outcomes, quality of life and patient experience in individuals affected by cancer.

What brought you to medicine and to UNC?

I’m originally from southern California, though spent my high school and college years in Massachusetts. I came to Duke for medical school, and received my master’s degree in public health from UNC.

I was interested in medicine because I was a government major in college and was very interested in political philosophy. I wanted to learn what we could do as citizens of the world to help our neighbors live a good life to the fullest extent possible. (I see) medicine as being the best representation of that goal – to work in a profession of healing to help others live the lives that they most want to live – to relieve suffering and enable others to achieve their own personal goals and aspirations.

That brought me to medicine and to public health, but also led me to my clinical interests in internal medicine and pediatrics. I was interested in promoting health throughout the entire lifespan.

As I became exposed to different clinical specialties through residency, I saw oncology as a unique area where relationships were intense, where the opportunity to relieve suffering was significant, and where the possibility of transforming illness into healing and growth was profound.  In oncology, there are so many opportunities as a healer to make an impact on somebody’s life, in an environment of great science and new approaches to help people feel and function as well as they can.

What have been your biggest research findings so far into using digital technologies in health care? How do they influence outcomes? 

Increasingly, we’re learning that the measurements we obtain from patients, whether they’re patient-reported surveys about symptoms or quality of life, or whether we’re obtaining information about their physiology from connected sensors gathering integrated information on activity, heart rate, respiratory rate … all of this information we’re bringing together is a true reflection of the lived cancer experience outside the hospital and outside the clinic, and it’s opening windows into so many specific areas where we can intervene as health care providers to make a positive impact.

I think the first part of a program like this is to gather and interpret data, and to find ways to distill that data into reports and displays and analyses that are meaningful to patients and clinicians. And the next part of the program, once we have that structure, shifts to interventions that can make a measurable difference within the data framework that has been developed.

Can you share one moment where you feel you were making a difference?

Every day that I see patients in clinic, and every day that I see patients in the hospital is a day that reminds me that each of us, every day, is making a difference. Because these are patients who are looking to us for help, and we’re able to use our abilities to the best that we can to provide that help.

Through our health coaching project, we’re developing longitudinal relationships between coaches and patients to try to address a lot of aspects of the patient experience that might be under-addressed during routine care. We focus on empowering and enabling patients to do things for themselves, like engaging in physical activity and improving their physical function and symptom experience.

We had several patients participate in the initial version of this program last year, and many found the program to be very helpful in recovering from transplant or recovering from cancer care. It seemed to be something that made a difference in the lives of patients which was immensely rewarding for us, and inspired us to develop the program further into its current version.

What hobbies do you have?

I love to run and enjoy hiking. I love to read. I enjoy playing piano, and although I’m classically trained, I enjoy a variety of kinds of music. I enjoyed traveling before COVID-19. I love spending time with my family, including my two daughters aged 8 and 10 years old. They are absolutely wonderful. My wife is a pediatrician, and sometimes we talk about work, but most of the time, we talk about a lot of things outside of work. We’re both motivated by similar interests and a shared way of looking at the world.