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What Apple's surprise announcement means for hospitals

March 10, 2015

    Dan Diamond, Executive Editor

    Apple announced its new Apple Watch device at a major media event on Monday—but for the health care industry, the surprise headline was Apple's new ResearchKit, a platform designed to upend how medical research gets done.

    Apple thinks ResearchKit will transform the process of finding trial participants, by allowing Apple users to simply opt into clinical trials via their iPhones.

    (The key data point here: 700 million, as in the number of iPhone users around the world.)

    And that argument seems more plausible, after Monday: Apple announced five clinical trials, and those studies already are seeing record patient demand.

    "After six hours, we have 7,406 people enrolled in our Parkinson's study," John Wilbanks, an executive with Sage Bionetworks, tweeted on Monday night. "Largest one ever before was 1,700 people."

    Apple also believes that ResearchKit will improve real-time, accurate data collection in clinical trials, given Apple devices' ubiquity and accessibility. Most iPhone users keep their smartphones within arm's length of them throughout the day.

    And the company argues this kind of innovation is overdue.

    When Apple was meeting with leaders in the health care industry to plan its new HealthKit platform, the shortfall in medical research often came up, one executive said on Monday. "The conversation often turned to research, and some of the challenges they face, in a process that hasn't really changed in decades," said Jeff Williams, a senior VP for Apple. "And we thought we could help"

    Apple's push into health care

    To be blunt, Apple's health care actions to this point had paled next to its ambitions.

    Yes, the company had announced HealthKit, as well as a new health and wellness app that tracks users' movements. But those initiatives have been somewhat slow to launch and the value proposition has been unclear for hospitals and doctors.

    And for all the medical device leaders that Apple has privately hired—for the "moral obligation" that its leaders reportedly felt to move into the health care market—the company had stayed relatively quiet on announcing its health care strategy.

    Even the Apple Watch's health care-specific functions—which were one of Apple's key selling points to buy the watch—have turned out to be somewhat disappointing.

    Related: Will Apple Watch revolutionize health care? Three reasons to be cautious.

    That's one reason why there's so much pent-up fuss over ResearchKit. It's an actual product launch that seems to be filling a market need … even though the technology isn't quite as new as it seems, says Kenneth Kleinberg, managing director for the Advisory Board Company. Other firms have attempted to also change how trial participants are recruited and data gets collected.

    But ResearchKit is "likely more visible, usable and with a higher chance of success than what the industry has seen so far," Kleinberg says.

    And moving into medical research could be both altruistic and strategic for Apple.

    The company's been trying to get a foothold with hospitals through its HealthKit platform, and the more that ResearchKit becomes an industry standard, the more likely that HealthKit—which is designed to integrate with ResearchKit—gains popularity, too.

    Next steps for Apple

    Apple is expected to make ResearchKit available in April as open-source code, so more organizations can design apps and use it to recruit patients for trials.

    And given that ResearchKit has Apple behind it, the platform really does seem to be potentially transformative—Apple's convening power is legendary, and many organizations have signaled they're willing to experiment with the new software.

    (The initial cohort of ResearchKit organizations included Stanford, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Mount Sinai Hospital.)

    Meanwhile, the Apple Watch launches in April, too. And while the technology isn't quite as advanced as expected, Apple Watch is still thought to be essential for Apple's strategy for real-time monitoring of patients through HealthKit.

    Essentially, April is shaping up to be a crucial one for Apple's health care ambitions.

    "History just might repeat itself when it comes to Apple's HealthKit," writes Modern Healthcare's Darius Tahir, who has covered Apple's health care strategy as well as anyone. "If the tech giant triumphs in the health care marketplace, it would be yet another example of it perfecting a nascent technology that its competitors had brought to market first."

    But for all the excitement, Apple's health care platforms are a very long way from becoming industry standard.

    "The health care data model of measures/biometrics for what Apple is using with Health and HealthKit is far from mature," said the Advisory Board's Kleinberg. "They are really just at the beginning of this."

    "I like the direction it is going," he added. "But patients are still rightfully skeptical of the pharma industry, and I don’t see hundreds of millions of Apple users standing in line to do clinical research for them just yet."

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