Srivastava developed an application that arms patients with information to battle cancer
When one of Gitika Srivastava’s closest relatives was diagnosed with cancer, her family’s whole world was turned upside down.
Faced with multiple treatment options for a complex diagnosis, Srivastava and her family wasted no time targeting the disease with a powerful weapon: information. They talked with doctors who were friends of the family, reached out to cancer researchers to learn about the nuances of chemotherapy, studied the latest literature in the field, and cut through layers of medical jargon with surgical precision. Their thorough work helped them quickly select an optimal treatment plan.
Through the experience, she learned volumes about the world of cancer treatment.
“In oncology, the best answer is very rarely obvious. No two cancers are the same. The patient’s individuality, the type of tumor, the patient’s demographic, other existing conditions – all of these things complicate the treatment choice,” said Srivastava, a computer science concentrator who graduated in 2001.
Soon, neighbors in her family’s hometown – a tight-knit industrial community in India – began calling on Srivastava for cancer-related advice. She reached out to her friend, physician Naresh Ramarajan, to find the best health information so her family’s neighbors could make informed treatment decisions.
“It struck [us] that a lack of evidence-based medical information is a problem that so many people face. We thought that there has to be a scalable way to bring data, evidence, and expertise to everyone,” she said.
So Srivastava, Ramarajan, and a group of colleagues developed Navya Network, an online software application that matches a patient’s characteristics to published health data, globally accepted medical guidelines, and expert physician recommendations to find the best treatment options. Navya Network organizes patient data and potential treatments into a summary/poll that is sent to a few expert physicians.
“The experts take a few minutes to look over the patient summary and the two or three possible treatment options, and then they click one,” Srivastava explained. “We can get the opinions of experts who are typically stretched too thin to look at medical reports of patients who are not part of their routine daily practice.”
To test whether the system would be as effective as a traditional tumor board (a team-based treatment planning approach), Srivastava conducted a clinical trial of the Navya Expert System by gathering data from 224 tumor board decisions at Tata Memorial Centre, one of Asia’s largest cancer hospitals. She ran the patient data through the application and found that, in 99 percent of cases, Navya recommended the same treatment as the hospital’s cancer experts.
Srivastava launched the expert opinion service in May 2014, in partnership with Tata, began processing cases for patients worldwide. Within the year, more than 2,000 patients from 27 countries had registered. After the founders announced Navya Network through the first official press release, more than 1,000 new patients signed up in a single month.
“There is no question that there is a need for this kind of service,” she said. “If a patient is able to make the right decisions early on, drawing on evidence-based medicine and expertise, it can completely alter the outcome.”
The application could be especially beneficial for patients who live far from major treatment centers, Srivastava said. While it could take months for a patient to get an appointment at a distant cancer center, Navya Network typically provides health care recommendations in three to seven days. The service is free for patients in India who are living below the poverty line. Others pay $100 for expert recommendations.
Srivastava and her colleagues are now working to strengthen the application by cataloging massive volumes of the latest patient data. They are also refining the Navya Expert System so it can provide treatment recommendations for all types of cancers and other complex diseases.
Navya Network is poised for explosive growth, Srivastava predicts. She is pursuing the opportunity to partner with other leading treatment centers around the globe.
“My family was fortunate in that we knew enough to stay focused on real data and real experts. If you simply go online and read websites or blogs, it can turn into a confusing nightmare,” she said. “There are multiple things that a patient does to fight their disease, but we are one piece of it. If we can provide them with the right data, their care can be positively impacted, and that feeling is extremely motivating.”