Apple HealthKit

iPhone, Apple Watch and Better Medical Research

For the past year, I have suffered from a serious illness, though blessedly at least for the time being, I’m in a healthy and functional condition. Not surprisingly though, I am interested in the efforts of research that turns out to be very low because the number of patients is small. But there should be little doubt I am fascinated and pleased by Apple’s efforts to change the game by aiding research efforts.

Apple put out the plan when it announced HealthKit  to developers at the Worldwide Developers Conference last June. It gave the plan a boost at its latest announcements by talking about how what it nw calls ResearchKit (( Apple originally named the program HeatlhKit at WWDC, then changed the name recently to RearchKit. Both names are still in use. )) will work with the iPhone 6 and the Apple Watch, which will ship in mid-April. A key and unusual part — participation in ResearchKit is open source, allowing free participation in development of research applications by anyone. Apple also makes sure the individual data collected and transmitted to researchers is not stored on the phone, both to protect the privacy of users and comply with legal requirements, such as HIPAA.

The Apple Watch adds capability to the iPhone 6 with features such as heart beat ((Unfortunately, the iPhone I and another user tried at Apple’s post-presentation demo showed heart beat rate significantly too high–by more than 30 beats per minute for me. I hope this gets straightened out before the Watch ships.)) and motion. The data adds to the information available to phone apps, both the built-in Health app and third party offerings.

The improvement of data for measuring and recording physical activity is a big help to iPhone and Apple Watch owners and the usefulness of the Apple Watch as an addition to exercise tools is a major selling point. But HealthKit may prove more important to society in the long run. Apple has gotten the project going with studies by at least a dozen research centers, from the Dana-Farber Research Institute to UCLA.

Stanford MyHeartJeff Williams, Apple senior vice president for occupations (above), noted the most important needs in medical research testing include getting volunteers to participate in studies. Inadequate numbers of participants or lacking the broad enough availability of patients can damage research. Cases where the number of patients is relatively small to begin with face particular difficulty working with enough cases. The availability of software on an iPhone and, where available, an Apple Watch, can dramatically improve participation. “Many of the 700 million with phones will contribute,” said Williams.

One example of a current ResearchKit application, mPower, is a collection of diagnostic data on Parkinson’s Disease by the University of Rochester and Sage Bionetworks. The iPhone, and presumably the Apple Watch as it becomes available, is used to measure hand tremor, voice stability, and gait precision. Without the iPhone and software, the data can generally only be gathered during doctor appointments; with a ResearchKit app, it can be collected with much more frequency and over a much greater range of circumstances.

Other initial apps for studies include asthma (Icahn Medial School/Mount Sinai Hospital and LifeMap Solutions, Asthma Health), heart disease (Stanford MyHeart Counts), diabetes (Mass General GlucoSuccess), and breast cancer (Dana-Farber, Penn, Sage Bionetworks, and UCLA, Share the Journey.)

The Apple Watch/iPhone combination offers a system competitors would have great difficulty matching. The variety of Android phones and their physical behavior measurement makes designing the software difficult and the large number of smartwatches with varying capability makes including them even more difficult. Samsung, if it were inclined, might manage an effort if it were limited to the Samsung S5 and S6 and Samsung’s watch, but there’s no indication of a market to match Apple’s.

Apple’s support for health research is a great start but, while it is likely to provide helpful research, the initial focus is on areas that are already heavily studied. My hope is ResearchKit will increase the research of conditions often inadequate today because the population of patients is too small and too dispersed for ideal studies.

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Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.

11 thoughts on “iPhone, Apple Watch and Better Medical Research”

  1. My wife is a breast cancer survivor and I am very interested in what begins to emerge as broader based (hopefully) research study participation picks up. Like you I hope this leads to more effective research information for other diseases.

    One note of concern though, I already get the sense that various parties, including government regulators are wanting to distort and wrest control over this. I have read comments today that we should not take as useful medical advice arising from HealthKit and Researchkit. This is in my mind blatant and purposeful distortion of what is being offered by -Apple. This appears as nothing more than an agenda in search of a controversy, contrived or otherwise.

    1. The government is necessarily involved. Apple partners are all health researchers that understand the process of dealing well with government (mostly FDA and NIH). I think Apple made a mistake of originally taking about HealthKit and ResearchKit as somewhat interchangeable. If nothing else, ResearchKit is doing regulated studies and Apple’s partners understand the rules.

      1. Your thoughts about where regulations are applicable are what I would think and expect. But as I suggested above I am already seeing uninformed speculation. Interestingly I was not confused about the difference between HK and RK, they serve quite different purposes. The confusion over interchangeability is no different than someone taking an online or magazine test for something and wondering if the results are significant. I would go to my doctor if I had such questions. My mothers law was initially flagged for possible Louie Body dementia (?, spelling) by her husband. She was subsequently properly diagnosed by medical professionals.

        There are serious medical policy and validity issues raised by what Apple is embarking on and I applaud their efforts to proceed along with the assistance of their partners.

        Personally I am more concerned by the multitude of psychometric like tests out their. Their validity is questionable (certainly in terms of how they are applied such as occupational and personal advice) and their propensity to pigeon hole people into architypes.

  2. It was reported elsewhere that in the recently held Apple shareholders meeting, Tim Cook referred to ResearchKit as a non-ROI item. Aside from the on-the-face-of-it virtue of this and other Apple no-direct-profitability actions with respect to the environment, diversity, and health, I like that as Apple moves more strongly in the luxury goods direction these non-ROI projects will inoculate Apple from the kind of venom, ridicule, and stigma that get directed at pure luxury goods companies. This is very astute and forward-looking marketing and reputation building, even though I don’t doubt the sincerity of Tim Cook’s and Apples motives.

  3. Stanford Medical center claimed yesterday that they achieved more in 24hrs with ResearchKit than they would have in a year at their locations. I think this is something genuinely altruistic from Apple (which is why I believe it has received so little mainstream press vs the watch and the macbook).
    Apple knows it has the cream of the market demographics in many key markets and has an emotional (or as Horace Dediu now claims – a post-emotional “endocrine”) relationship with its customers. There are probably other social functions beyond medical research that Apple can leverage, though probably none more useful (or less controversial) than medical.

  4. One thing that helped Apple with it’s success was their image as truly exciting and innovative. Since the watch doesn’t excite the general public , they needed something else to keep their brand strong.So they built researchKit.

    But researchKit isn’t new, other companies in the industry have been working on such tools. For example, mprove. But now is a great time to copy others and release such tool and get the credit, before such tools might be more known.

    And since a lot of the value Apple has is derived from it’s brand, i’m sure it would be a good business decision, altough i believe cook also care about contributing.

    1. Mprove is trying to reduce friction in the cold-calling and engaging of potential patients but much of it seems to be about the response method (seemingly sms-based). ResearchKit provides similar tools (though seems to be more explictly App-based) but is also about providing the survey population – iPhone/iDevice users. Given what Stanford just achieved, it seems to put other tool-driven approaches in the shade.

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