In March Apple released ResearchKit, an open source software framework that allows medical researchers to use the iPhone to more easily design apps that they’re going to use for clinical studies. While the initiative didn’t get a lot of hype (maybe it was overshadowed by the release of Apple Watch), it does raise some interesting questions about medical research data.

Apple’s March promotional video explains ResearchKit

The promotional video for ResearchKit is filmed in that low-light, people-centric, homey style that makes you feel comfortable and simultaneously like we’re on the edge of a medical research breakthrough.  “Methods for conducting medical research haven’t really changed in decades,” one talking head tells us, and we learn that ResearchKit is trying to change the scale of the amounts of data a study can collect.

This is a game changer, since quantitative data is really only as strong as its sample size. And with hundreds of millions of iphone users, ResearchKit is an opportunity to engage unprecedented numbers of individuals across large geographic areas, many of which could otherwise never participate in medical research.

Among apps already developed for ResearchKit is GlucoSuccess, a Massachusetts General Hospital app to help researchers understand how variables like diet, physical activity, and medication affect blood glucose levels. While its free on the App Store, reviewers complain of slowness and regular crashes, saying that it’s not the same quality as other apps.

One conceptual problem with ResearchKit is that it is only available to people with iPhones, which raises issues about selection bias – soemthing researchers are concerned with. For example, as a study reported earlier this year, there are positive correlations between college graduates and iPhone users, so ResearchKit is starting with a population skewed towards a particular demographic. As one article points out, the 80% of us who use an Android, Windows, or Blackberry phone are out of luck.

Something that’s also a bit confusing about the marketing of ResearchKit is all the talk about putting solutions in the hands of the patient. “One of the things research kit will do is put people at the center of research, giving people the insights and tools they need to live better and healthier lives.”

It’s pretty clear that a bigger sample size means better medical research, and that widespread iPhone use is a great opportunity to get more participants. But how will participating in a research study improve my own health?

The answer is that many of the apps built with ResearchKit enable users to track their own data and, as Apple puts it, “potentially discover correlations between symptoms and daily actions such as diet and exercise.” In other words, Apple hopes that by participating in medical research studies you might take a more proactive and informed approach to your own health. It sounds promising, but I’d like to see the research.

A more tangible examples of these benefits to the user can be seen in the ResearchKit Asthma Health app, developed by LifeMap, Mount Sinai, and Weill Cornell Medical College. In addition to tracking individuals’ symptom patterns to gain greater insight into triggers for the disease, the app combines your iPhone’s GPS location with city air quality data to help you avoid areas where symptoms could be triggered.

If ResearchKit could simultaneously achieve healthier study participants and a better understanding of widespread chronic diseases like asthma and diabetes, it just might make the quantified self relevant.

Comments are closed.