Cloudy with a chance of pain: a project update

Posted on February 26, 2015

Having secured £80k funding in summer 2014 a HeRC research project that applies mHealth methods to the monitoring of disease severity in rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is about to begin its first phase of testing.

Last year we reported that a study team – led by HeRC investigator Dr Will Dixon in partnership with Dr Karen Spencer from The University of Manchester’s Centre for Primary Care – received funding to run a project that uses sensors and smartphone technology to collect information about the severity of patient’s RA symptoms and other information including weather.

The aim of the project is to work with a small group of patients with arthritis to co-design a smartphone application and to test its use in everyday life. This will provide confidence in the concept of using smartphones to collect both self-reported and automated data using the smartphone’s GPS and accelerometer technology.  These findings will support a larger subsequent project that will firstly investigate the association between weather, physical activity and joint pain, and secondly develop a validated algorithm of disease severity using the passively collected data.

Following the successful completion the project’s development stage, involving the creation of the mobile app in partnership with patients and members of the public; feasibility testing will now begin in early March (2015) with a group of 20 volunteers from Salford in Greater Manchester.

With the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis erratic and unpredictable, a doctors understanding of how their patients condition is evolving is currently based on memory, with no objective measure available for health professionals to understand or measure disease severity in between standard health appointments.

The long-term aim is to meet this demand by creating a smartphone app that will improve communication between patient and clinician and empower those suffering with RA to become partners in the treatment of their disease, engaged through better quality information and the power of shared decision making.

The project works in a number of ways; firstly mobility sensors will track a patient’s activity as part of their everyday life. This information is recorded passively in a mobile app that requires the research participant to do nothing more than carry the phone with them throughout their day.

Each evening the app prompts the patient to diarise how they are feeling on a scale from 1-5 in ten key symptom indicators that include pain, fatigue and general wellbeing.

In addition to this, the app, designed by software developers U-Motif, will link though to weather stations in the local area and capture key information about relevant climate conditions. This is important because weather is often cited as a factor influencing the severity of symptoms for patients with RA and little research has to date been conducted investigating this relationship.

All of the information is stored and automatically presented in simple and easy to understand chart that allows both the research team and the patient to see how symptoms have fluctuated over a period of time. The information also feeds into a database that allows researchers to investigate on a population-level any correlation between physical activity, the weather, symptoms and the severity of symptoms.

Dr Karen Spencer said: “The project is progressing as we had hoped with feedback from the public focus groups being very positive. It is still early days but we have made sure that the public’s opinions regarding the language used in the app and the scaling of their symptoms was taken on board and I am looking forward to seeing how the next couple of months progress.

The feasibility trial will last for 60 days and following this we will conduct qualitative interviews with all participants. If things go well then additional funding will be sought to help scale-up the project for a much larger study.”


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Stephen Melia, Communications Officer, Tel: 0161 306 7876, Mobile: 07757 310213, Email: