Apple launches ResearchKit to bring your data to medical research

We’re finally getting to some of the promise of connected health with the launch of ResearchKit, a framework announced at the Apple event Monday that allows medical researchers to take advantage of the data gathered by the iPhone to help advance their own diagnostics or studies of disease.

ResearchKit, like HomeKit or HealthKit, is simply a way for researchers to build applications and get data out of the iPhone that might be useful for their own purposes, but it represents a huge opportunity to make it easy to recruit people to participate in giving doctors insights about their ongoing health conditions on a regular basis, as opposed to during monthly office visits.

It also offers a chance to give patients objective tests for diseases such as Parkinson’s as opposed to subjective evaluations based on a doctor’s opinion of how a patient is able to walk. Now, for example, they could speak into their iPhone on a ResearchKit app and give objective data, or take a dexterity test based on tapping. Both were examples given by Jeff Williams, during the presentation as he showed of the first five apps built using ResearchKit that are available today.

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The five apps were focused on five diseases including Parkinson’s, asthma, breast cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. In the case of asthma, the phone would be used in conjunction with environmental tests and connected inhalers, so the GPS coordinates of the places where a person used their inhaler could be linked to the environmental tests. It’s reminiscent of what Asthmapolis does, only with an iPhone and a university.

And that’s what’s important here. I’ve seen a lot of specialized sensor efforts to gather data from patient populations, and specialized efforts to reach out to doctors and hospitals, but if ResearchKit has one thing going for it, it’s that many patients and doctors already use the primary tool they’ll need already — their iPhone. I may not like the platform because it locks people into using an iPhone to collect that data, but one of the biggest hurdles to patient’s adopting new medical technology is that it’s hard to use.

Either the patients or the doctors don’t want to learn how to use it. Downloading an app is much easier than learning how to connect a new device to your Wi-Fi network or toting around a new device. So this approach has a lot of promise. Plus, Williams stressed two really important things at the event. The first was that Apple will not see any of the user data and the second is that Apple will open source ResearchKit, making it available to all platforms.

Thus, what you have here is the beginning of what could become a widely adopted way for people to volunteer their medical data for science or to their doctor in a way that is private and could reach beyond the Apple ecosystem. If that is what comes to pass, ResearchKit might be the biggest thing Apple launches today, even counting a watch. Apple will release ResearchKit next month.