Since its launch in 2015, researchers and providers have used Apple's ResearchKit to collect and analyze users' health data, but now, they are looking to create applications more clinical in nature, Kate Sheridan writes for STAT News.
ResearchKit is an open-source software platform that enables researchers to create disease-specific health apps for the iPhone and Apple Watch to conduct population-based studies. Apple users can use the apps to track their symptoms and participate in the studies.
ResearchKit was designed to help researchers have study populations that are more diverse. Apple Senior Vice President of Operations Jeff Williams also said the tool would help researchers with problems of small sample sizes or issues resulting from subjective or potentially faulty data.
How researchers are using ResearchKit
Since its launch, ResearchKit has generated numerous studies in which researchers are creating apps to collect and analyze data on various health conditions, ranging from asthma to seizures to Parkinson's disease.
For instance, a team at Mount Sinai in March published findings from its asthma app which collected data on more than 2,000 people, and unlike CDC's National Health Interview Survey, which is taken once per person, individual participants were able to provide data over several days. After analyzing the data, the researchers found asthma attacks are more likely to occur in the summer than in the spring and that air quality plays a key role in asthma symptoms.
Similarly, a team led by Stanford University researchers published preliminary results in January in JAMA Cardiology of their MyHeart Counts app, which monitors the effect of physical activity on heart health. Through the app, the researchers collected data on more than 20,000 people and found that a majority of participants were stationary for half of their day, and those who were the least active were the most likely to have a cardiovascular-related condition.
Next level research
But, according to STAT News, some researchers are looking to take their ResearchKit studies to the next level: "hacking our ubiquitous mobile devices to become potentially lifesaving medical monitors."
For instance, a Johns Hopkins team is working to turn its EpiWatch app into a "seizure detector" that would be able to detect seizure triggers and alert patients before they have an episode. The team has already used the app to collect patient data before, during, and after a seizure. During a presentation at the American Academy of Neurology's annual meeting on April 27, the researchers said the data show missed medication, stress, and trouble sleeping are associated with an increased likelihood of seizure.
Gregory Krauss, a professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins, said his team could roll out the new detection feature as early as autumn 2017.
While ResearchKit has reinvented the type and amount of data researchers can collect, STAT News reports that it has struggled to deliver on its initial promise of giving researchers more diverse study populations.
This is in part because the potential population pool is restricted to individuals who can afford an Apple product, meaning many low-income individuals do not have access to the studies conducted via ResearchKit. Further, some researchers said that there tend to be a higher number of participants located in technology-friendly cities and regions, such as San Francisco. And researchers working on the asthma study noted that their participant pool tended to be younger, male, and have higher income and education levels. The researchers also said the study sample was not ethnically diverse.
Further, while some researchers are in talks to create a similar platform for Android, called ResearchStack, Krauss said such developments are years away. "Eventually, I think (other watches will) all be able to collect biosensor data, have a user interface, and support this kind of activity. But the Apple Watch, we can use it to do that right now," Krauss said (Sheridan, STAT News, 5/26).
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