With iOS8 Apple released ResearchKit, an open source framework that supports the creation of medical research apps. It contains several components that have been challenging for researchers to create on their own, including a comprehensive workflow for participants to grant consent, as well as ways to measure tasks in real time and to conduct surveys.
There are several significant implications, starting with the shear size of the available pool of participants: every iPhone and iPad user with access to iOS8 or greater. Now, participation in medical research—into diabetes, heart disease, or cancer—is just a tap away.
Indeed, Stanford University researchers were pleasantly surprised to find that 11,000 participants signed up for a cardiovascular study within a day of its launch. This number is unheard of in traditional studies, which struggle to get significant numbers of people involved (one concern is that the pool may be too large and not targeted enough, but given prior history, this is what we might term a good problem to have).
In addition, the platform mitigates the natural bias people have in self-reporting. Consider what your answer would be when asked how much exercise you’ve done in the last week? Now, because you’ve allowed your phone to measure this info, your self-reported answers can be compared to actual data, which is collected silently and continuously. Bias is thereby reduced, improving the data necessary to guide valid research findings and recommendations.
Reach, participation, and accuracy, then, are core elements that make ResearchKit really compelling for universities and hospitals that have, frankly, struggled to get the word out about their studies, get people to sign up, and develop (good) digital tools that support their research requirements and goals.
There’s a lot of hope that ResearchKit will enable meaningful medical research on a scale that’s not been possible prior. Early signs are very encouraging.
Aside from the stated purpose of ResearchKit, I find that one of the more interesting ways to understand it is from the business strategy perspective. Odd as it may sound, Apple’s business strategy is what enabled the company to create this kind of open source framework that, at its core, leverages impressive technology to safeguard participant privacy.
Because Apple makes (virtually) all of their money selling devices, the services that sit on top are offered as a way to add value to these devices. Unlike, for example, Google, whose business is based on mining customer data to sell advertising (and in the process, offer some compelling services like Google Now), Apple carefully avoids tracking or recording anything its customers do on their devices.
This has left Apple with an interesting competitive advantage, which is that they are widely trusted. What other Silicon Valley corporation could offer to track and store your medical research data without substantial and widespread debate about how it will be used and if it should be trusted? Yet, here we are with a platform already widely embraced by medical researchers and participants alike, with press coverage being generally quite positive.
In the end, it’s nice to see how an enormous corporation can align a good cause with their underlying business strategy. ResearchKit promises to transform the amount and quality of data we can gather to better understand—and cure—both major and minor diseases.