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Will Apple’s ResearchKit transform health studies?

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Apple has unveiled a new software framework called ResearchKit, which it hopes will enable 700 million iPhone users worldwide to participate in health studies and access diagnostic tools at the touch of a screen.

ResearchKit, which was recently showcased by Apple's senior vice president of operations Jeff Williams, is the technology giant’s latest foray into health and wellness, following the launch of

the HealthKit platform.

With the need to build a stronger evidence base – one of the key priorities to attract wellness aficionados – Apple’s new framework could present significant opportunities. Traditionally, collecting participants for research studies has been an arduous and expensive task, however ResearchKit has instantly demonstrated its potential. Just 24 hours after the framework was introduced last month, researchers at Stanford University were amazed to find that 11,000 people had signed up to their cardiovascular study overnight using ResearchKit.

“Numbers are everything. The more people who contribute their data, the bigger the numbers, the truer the representation of a population, and the more powerful the results,” said the American Heart Association’s Dr Eduardo Sanchez in a statement.

“A research platform that allows large amounts of data to be collected and shared — that can only be a positive thing for medical research.”

From a user perspective, the studies’ apps help people to track their conditions and access advice on how to manage symptoms. There are currently five disease-related apps: mPower for Parkinson’s sufferers; My Heart Counts for cardiovascular disease, Asthma Health, GlucoSuccess for diabetes, and Share the Journey – for a study of the after effects of treatment for breast cancer.

The apps make use of smartphone features such as accelerometers, gyroscopes and GPS locators to set study participants daily tasks and exercises – such as finger-tapping tests to check Parkinson’s sufferers’ speed of movement. The results of these are fed back to researchers, as well as the user, enabling both parties to track the progress of a condition.

As you might expect with health data, concerns have been raised that users’ sensitive information could be put at risk. However, Apple has stressed that users will be in control of how and where data is shared, with sensitive information only visible to medical researchers. “Apple will not see your data,” Williams said during last month’s presentation.

Critics also say that the data collected via ResearchKit is likely to be unrepresentative of the wider population, as iPhones are still too expensive for the poorer sections of society. Again, Apple is seeking to counter this, with plans to make the ResearchKit available soon on an open-source basis. Doing so would enable development of apps for Android-based phones, which are often cheaper than iPhones, thus widening usage of the ResearchKit apps to a broader population.

There are more than 900 apps on the HealthKit platform already. ResearchKit can tap into data generated by its own apps, the Apple Watch and HealthKit — like daily step counts, calorie use, and heart rates — making it accessible to medical researchers. There are also plans to develop more study apps on ResearchKit – by working in partnership with leading research institutions from around the world – to explore further conditions.

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Apple has unveiled a new software framework called ResearchKit, which it hopes will enable 700 million iPhone users worldwide to participate in health studies and access diagnostic tools at the touch of a screen.
HAF
Apple's ResearchKit platform could have major implications for participation in health studies / Shutterstock.com / photoiva
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