Apple announced on Monday a new tool, ResearchKit, intended to make it easier to collect medical research data and monitor patients. The announcement came as Apple unveiled its long-awaited Apple Watch as well.
The tool, an application program interface (API) which Apple is making available without charge, allows researchers to connect with potential study subjects who are iPhone owners. APIs allow software developers to easily write programs because they specify how programs should communicate with other devices.
The first partners to develop healthcare apps using the new tool include Stanford Medicine, University of Rochester Medical Center, Massachusetts General Hospital, Mount Sinai in New York City, and Sage Bionetworks, a Seattle-based not-for-profit that promotes patient engagement.
One app already developed is mPower, created to connect with an iPhone easily through the API. University of Rochester Medical Center and Sage Bionetworks created the app to reach Parkinson's disease patients.
Patients can consent to take part in research quickly using a signature on an iPhone touchscreen. They then can, at any time, take tests and complete researcher-driven tasks. The app can assess the progression of tremors from a patient tapping on the screen or using the phone's built-in sensors to track the balance of a patient while walking.
The integration of the app into the phone allows researchers to compare the progression of Parkinson's with a patient's exercise levels, meaning that researchers can ascertain whether exercise can slow or even reverse the disease's march.
Other apps debuting along with the official launch of the API in one month's time are an asthma app, from researchers at Mount Sinai; a diabetes app, written by Massachusetts General researchers; a cardiovascular health app, written by Stanford Medicine and University of Oxford (U.K.) researchers; and a breast cancer app, written by researchers from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, among other partners.
Jeff Williams, Apple's senior vice president of operations, explained that Apple, in discussions with healthcare officials, found frustrations with the pace of research. It's difficult to recruit patients, which results in small sample sizes—meaning less meaningful data, Apple was told. Data is often based on subjective or self-reported scales, which is not necessarily quantitatively rigorous.
Because patients have to see the doctor, updates on the patient's condition are only periodic. “But we all know disease fluctuates daily or even hourly,” Williams said. And patients don't necessarily find out the results of their study until the end, if it all.
But Apple's iPhone can solve many of those problems, because of the device's ubiquity, he said. Potential study subjects are always carrying their phones around, and they can find out about and sign up for studies at rapid speed.
The newly unveiled Apple Watch had fewer healthcare applications than had once been hoped for. Issues with sensors working properly had led Apple to leave out some healthcare functionality.
Follow Darius Tahir on Twitter: @dariustahir