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What Is Apple’s ResearchKit and Why Is It Important?

By Abder-Rahman Ali

On March 9th, 2015 Apple announced ResearchKit, an open source software framework designed for medical and health research. ResearchKit aims to help doctors and scientists gather data more accurately and frequently, from participants using iPhone apps. Users have the freedom to decide whether they want to participate in a study, and how their data is shared.

The full details will be available in April, but features mentioned so far include:

  • Open Source.
  • Integration with Apple's HealthKit.
  • Surveys and Survey Management.
  • Informed Consent through template documents and signature capture.
  • Active Tasks that leverage hardware sensors to track user activity. These have been developed in association with several recognized Medical research institutions and fall under several categories.
  • Workflow Control based upon user interaction and goals.

Read the full Technical Overview here.

Why ResearchKit?

The core purpose of introducing ResearchKit is to …Enhance medical research….

Jeff Williams, Apple's senior vice president of operations said:

iOS apps already help millions of customers track and improve their health. With hundreds of millions of iPhones in use around the world, we saw an opportunity for Apple to have an even greater impact by empowering people to participate in and contribute to medical research.
ResearchKit gives the scientific community access to a diverse, global population and more ways to collect data than ever before.

ResearchKit allows participants to submit surveys from the app, allowing researchers to spend more time on analyzing the data and putting it to good use.

Eric Schadt, director and founder of the Icahn Institute for Genomics and Multiscale Biology, and chair of the Department of Genetics and Genomics Sciences at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, says:

When it comes to researching how we can better diagnose and prevent disease, numbers are everything. By using Apple’s new ResearchKit framework, we’re able to extend participation beyond our local community and capture significantly more data to help us understand how asthma works. Using the iPhone’s advanced sensors, we’re able to better model an asthma patient’s condition to enable us to deliver a more personalized, more precise treatment.

Community reaction

Community reaction and enthusiasm for ResearchKit took everyone by surprise with thousands already signed up. After less than 24 hours from introduction, 11,000 people had signed up for a cardiovascular study.

In order to to understand the significance of this number, Alan Yeung, medical director of Stanford Cardiovascular Health, says:

To get 10,000 people enrolled in a medical study normally, it would take a year and 50 medical centers around the country. That’s the power of the phone.

Current Diseases covered by ResearchKit

Asthma

The Asthma Health App helps gain greater insight into your asthma. Helping you to adhere to treatment plans, avoid triggers and take charge of your health. The app provides personalized reminders to take your prescribed medications, helps you track your condition 24×7, allows you to review trends and gives feedback progress.

The app was created by the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and LifeMap Solutions.

To join this study on Asthma, you need to be a resident of the US, be 18 years old or older, have asthma confirmed by a doctor, and be prescribed medication for asthma.

Breast Cancer

Nexi is Share the Journey app, sponsored by the non-profit research organization, Sage Bionetworks, with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. It aims to understand symptoms after breast cancer treatment, why these symptoms vary over time, and what can be done to improve them.

Share the Journey will use surveys and phone sensor data to collect and track five common symptoms that can persist after breast cancer treatment. These are fatigue, mood and cognitive changes, sleep disturbances, and reduction in exercise.

To participate, you need to be a US resident woman, aged between 18 and 80 years, and have a personal iPhone. It is not necessary to have a history in breast cancer.

Diabetes

GlucoSuccess is an app that helps manage your type 2 diabetes. It keeps track of health behavior important for people with type 2 diabetes, such as physical activity, diet, and taking your medicine.

GlucoSuccess is sponsored by the Center for Assessment Technology and Continuous Health (CATCH) at the Massachusetts General Hospital (Boston, Massachusetts).

The study is open to US residents only who are 18 and over, with either pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes.

Heart disease and Strokes

MyHeart Counts, by Stanford Medicine is designed to study activity and heart health. Stanford University scientists plan to use data gathered to improve methods of preventing and treating heart disease.

The app will help users to learn about their risk of heart disease and stroke, and what they can do to help keep their heart healthy.

The study is open to US residents only, aged 18 years and over and with an iPhone.

Parkinson's Disease

mPower, sponsored by Sage Bionetworks, with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, uses a mix of surveys and tasks that activate phone sensors to collect and track health and symptoms of Parkinson's Disease progression.

Sage Bionetworks are aiming to monitor health from Parkinson's Disease sufferers. They want to understand why some with Parkinson's Disease have different symptoms from others and why a person’s symptoms and side effects can vary over time. Sage Bionetworks believes that the insights gained from this study may help develop ideas about how to manage these differences in symptoms.

Only US residents who are over 18 years old, with a personal iPhone are allowed to participate, regardless if they have Parkinson's Disease or not.

Concerns

Although this seems an interesting step that Apple is taking to enhance medical research, there are many concerns regarding ResearchKit.

For example, Lisa Schwartz, professor at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, says:

Just collecting lots of information about people – who may or may not have a particular disease, and may or may not represent the typical patient – could just add noise and distraction.

Unsurprisingly for a new Apple Technology, ResearchKit is US only, which restricts its global usage to areas that could benefit from medical insights.

What are your thoughts on ResearchKit? Is the easy access to data a valuable insight or just more noise to filter?

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