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Apple’s ResearchKit: Our Complete Overview

One of the unexpected announcements from Apple’s Spring Forward keynote this morning was ResearchKit. ResearchKit is a new initiative by Apple which will enable medical researchers to tap into the vast amount of iPhones in use around the world in order to gather new types of data on an unprecedented scale.

During the keynote, Jeff Williams, Apple’s senior vice president of Operations, took the stage to talk about the problems of medical research. Last year Apple announced a similar initiative, HealthKit, which was more focused on personal health. According to Williams, while talking to medical experts regarding HealthKit, the conversations often led to research and the problems that the field faced. Some of the biggest challenges to medical research, as Williams stated them, are limited participation (small sample sizes), subjective data, infrequent data, and one-way communication. He went on to say that there are hundreds of millions of iPhone users in the world, and many of them would gladly participate in these studies if it were only simpler and easier to do so.

ResearchKit

ResearchKit is Apple’s answer to this problem. It is an open source software framework built to enable more frequent and more accurate data to be gathered from iPhone users for medical research. Apple has already been working with several big name research institutions to develop apps that make use of the ResearchKit framework. Apps developed with ResearchKit can gather data from the Health app such as weight, blood pressure, and asthma inhaler use. These are statistics which are already being measured by HealthKit apps, and ResearchKit apps will be able to tap into any of these data points that they need (with the user’s permission, of course). ResearchKit can also gather data from standard iPhone hardware functions such as the accelerometer, gyroscope, microphone, and GPS. These can be used to measure a patient’s gait, motor impairments, fitness, speech, memory, and more, and all of these data points can be sent to researchers to compile and study. Apple will never see any of this data, it goes directly between users and the researchers they’ve chosen to share it with.

ResearchKit will make joining studies easier than it has ever been before. All of the steps can be taken directly from ResearchKit apps, from the signup process to completing tasks and taking surveys. This removes the inconvenience of paperwork for participants and researchers alike. The consent process for ResearchKit apps is interactive and informative, and will allow users to choose exactly which studies to participate in and exactly what information to give to each study.

ResearchKit is an open source framework, meaning it will be available for developers to use regardless of what platform they are building on. Apple wants as many people as possible to be participating in its potential breakthrough in medical research, so while the launch partner apps are iPhone only for now, ResearchKit will not be restricted to Apple’s platforms alone.

The Launch Apps

Five apps were announced as launch partners for ResearchKit: Asthma Health, mPower, GlucoSuccess, Share the Journey, and MyHeart Counts.

Asthma Health

The Asthma Health app was developed by Mount Sinai, Weill Cornell Medical College, and LifeMap. It tracks its users location to help them self-manage their asthma by avoiding areas of bad air quality, which could cause their symptoms to grow worse. The app is part of a larger study, so when users report their individual worsening of symptoms in particular locations, researchers will be tracking this, and compiling a database from all of the individual cases. Eventually they could form a bigger picture of the triggers for the disease, and hope to use this to better personalize treatments in the future.

mPower

The mPower app, developed by the University of Rochester and Sage Bionetworks, helps people living with Parkinson’s disease to more easily track their symptoms. The app features several simple and easy activities (such as a memory game, finger tapping, speaking, and walking) to achieve this, and the researchers will be using the data gathered to study the disease at a previously impossible scale.

GlucoSuccess

Developed by Massachusetts General Hospital, GlucoSuccess tracks the diets, physical activity, and medications of people living with diabetes. Its goal is to identify how these aspects of people’s lives affect their blood glucose levels. As people participate in the study, they will begin to be able to see correlations, and can take more active roles in their own well beings. The researchers, in turn, get this data as well, and will be using it to fuel their own research on diabetes.

Share the Journey

Share the Journey is an app by the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, Penn Medicine, and Sage Bionetworks. Its goal is to learn more about the long-term effects of chemotherapy as a treatment for breast cancer. The study tracks participants’ energy levels, cognitive abilities, and moods, and hopes to shed light on new ways to improve their post-treatment quality of life.

MyHeart Counts

MyHeart Counts, created by Stanford Medicine and the University of Oxford, seeks to more accurately evaluate how different lifestyles relate to risks of cardiovascular disease. It tracks this data by collecting surveys from its users and having them perform various tasks. Researchers hope to use the data to learn how to keep people’s hearts healthier.

Changing the World

Apple seems serious about ResearchKit, and their clearly stated goals for the project are quite ambitious. Apple wants to truly change the world with ResearchKit by revolutionizing the way medical studies can be carried out. They want to connect more people to researchers on scales never before imagined. If ResearchKit is a success, it could easily have a bigger impact on the world than any of Apple’s products have ever had.

It will likely be years before we know if ResearchKit is truly as impactful as Apple hopes it will be, research takes time no matter how easy it is to connect with study subjects, but all researchers can jump in when Apple releases the framework next month.

Apple's ResearchKit Press Release.

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