Apple ResearchKit – Medical research at home using your iPhone

Apple ResearchKit

September 14, 2015

Article by Dr Dan Hancock

Anyone involved in recruiting to a research project will appreciate that the resources required to make it a success can be quite labour intensive. Apple have developed a way to help with this and in March this year announced the release of ResearchKit, an open source software framework that allows developers and researchers to create iPhone apps to aid medical research [1].

Through an individual’s iPhone, ResearchKit allows the ability to not only generate surveys and take informed consent from appropriate participants but also to actively collect research data.

This data collection can be obtained either through individuals entering readings they have taken (such as blood sugar in diabetics or peak flow in asthmatics) or through background collection using the iPhones technology (for example the gyroscope and accelerometer assessing deterioration in gait in people with Parkinsons Disease) or paired wearable devices. The data is subsequently anonymised and sent to the team performing the research for analysis. Apple themselves have been keen to stress that they don’t have access to the data collected [2].

A major limiting factor in medical research has been recruiting appropriate numbers of participants, with individuals having to come into the hospital or lab in person to have their initial consent and subsequent data obtained. ResearchKit allows for informed consent to be taken from home, through electronic signature and a series of questions. This has revolutionised the number of participants research studies can recruit and consequently increases the potential power of a study. The mPower app, developed by researchers from Rochester University and Sage Biotech to monitor the progress of Parkinsons Disease, was able to recruit over 7000 participants in its first few hours of being available, when previously the most they had recruited for similar trials was 1700[3]. Similarly there were 11,000 participants recruited in the day of release of the app designed to assess an individual’s risk for heart disease developed by Stanford and Oxford University, a figure that would usually take a year to recruit [4].

There has however been some concern regarding the potential for data bias given the demographic of iPhone users, the fact that individuals cannot ask questions when consent is being obtained and the potential for the vulnerability of the data itself for future manipulation; however ResearchKit still remains an exciting development for the field of medical research [5].

Currently there are five apps available for download, covering research in asthma, Parkinson’s disease, breast cancer, diabetes and heart disease [2], but this is expected to continue expanding into other branches of medicine. If you feel that ResearchKit could be used to facilitate your research interests or you have further questions then please contact Technical Health for more information.