Apple launch sees thousands sign up for ResearchKit studies

12 Mar 2015


Less than a day after Apple launched ResearchKit, 11,000 people signed up for a heart study, 2,500 for asthma and 5,500 for Parkinson’s. Traditionally, they would take years to recruit.

While the world waited for a revolutionary wrist-based timepiece last Monday – disregarding centuries of clockwork armwear – Apple announced a new, potentially revolutionary, ResearchKit.

An open-source platform allowing developers to create apps for conducting medical research, it’s quite a clever idea, and it’s taken off incredibly quickly.

Five already-developed apps were announced on Monday, with the coverage they received ensuring no shortage of subjects from their contained audience.

Quite the result

According to Bloomberg, Stanford University researchers discovered 11,000 people had signed up for their cardiovascular app the morning after the launch.

“To get 10,000 people enrolled in a medical study normally, it would take a year and 50 medical centers around the country,” said Alan Yeung, medical director of Stanford Cardiovascular Health. “That’s the power of the phone.”

An asthma study created by a team at Icahn School of Medicine, along with LifeMap, saw 2,500 subjects at the same time. Elsewhere a Parkinson’s research app, developed in part by the Michael J Fox Foundation, had over 5,500.

As yet it’s unclear just how beneficial signees will be to any form of respected medical research, given the personal disconnect between subject and researcher. However, considering the consistent measurements that certain apps can avail of (24-hour cardio monitoring, exercise readings etc) the potential there is so significant.

Bias times a million is still bias

“Just collecting lots of information about people — who may or may not have a particular disease, and may or may not represent the typical patient — could just add noise and distraction,” said professor Lisa Schwartz to Bloomberg. “Bias times a million is still bias.”

There are real areas of concern though, such as ages of consent and indeed demographics taking part. For example it’s fair to assume most owner of iPhones are in a financially better position than those with cheaper variants, or indeed no smartphone whatsoever.

However that’s the world we are creating now, with data analytics still in its infancy. Todd Sherer, CEO of the Michael J Fox Foundation was quick to point to the benefits, rather than the flaws.

“I don’t think we want to give the perception that this type of research will replace the more standard, physician-based, direct interaction with the patient,” he said. “But I do think this provides a complementary type of research in a different way. Any kind of tool that will make it easier to engage more people in research is really important.”

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic