Dr. Yvonne Chan, director of personalized medicine and digital health at Mount Sinai, said she and her colleagues are using the Asthma Health app as part of a study to determine whether there are geographical and environmental connections to asthma attacks. They will examine the data received through study participants' iPhones about their asthma symptoms and correlate that with data about where the asthma attacks occurred and the corresponding weather and air-quality conditions.
They hope to create algorithms that send alerts to patients through their iPhones warning them about potential asthma-attack triggers, Chan said.
Bridges said the ResearchKit API—especially when combined with Apple's previous HealthKit API—makes life easier for clinical- research- and treatment-app developers. That's because APIs are essentially instruction manuals and templates for developers, giving them a standard process for collecting and transporting data transmitted by smartphones or other mobile devices. The standard templates are particularly helpful for obtaining informed consent.
The ResearchKit API will combine with Apple's HealthKit API, which provides a similar template for demographic and physiological data. Using those two APIs, the Asthma Health app can transmit information about a patient's location, height, weight and physical activity to researchers, Chan said.
While Asthma Health is one of the first apps with a ResearchKit linkup, its developers aren't the first to use mobile devices to help asthma patients. Other developers have already started thinking about the challenges of asthma care and mobile devices, and will seek to use ResearchKit.
Chris Hogg, chief operating officer of Propeller Health, a Madison, Wis.-based firm that offers mobile devices for monitoring asthma patients, said his firm is expanding an asthma research partnership with Louisville, Ky.
The goal is to determine what environmental factors lead to asthma attacks among local residents. Based on the data, the city might plant trees, curb traffic and more tightly regulate factory emissions in areas with high asthma attack rates.
Those data are being gathered automatically rather than having study subjects enter the information themselves. Propeller Health can insert a Bluetooth-enabled sensor in each asthma patient's rescue inhaler, so that usage is automatically transmitted to researchers and clinicians.
A more automatic approach means more reliable data, which means more reliable alerts about risk factors, Hogg said. Passive data collection is more effective, he added, because people have become conditioned by digital technology to simple, passive usage.
Asthma Health researchers say some of their data are collected automatically and passively, but some are not. To automatically record inhaler use, the study subject's inhaler device must be Bluetooth-enabled.
There are many questions about the reliability of data gathered from patients and study subjects through iPhones, said Dr. Robert Wachter, a medical professor at the University of California, San Francisco and author of a new book, “The Digital Doctor.” Still, he added, “it's good to start somewhere, and eventually someone will figure this out.”
—Sabriya Rice contributed to this story.