iPhone, Apple Watch and Better Medical Research

on March 11, 2015

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.