Apple's ResearchKit Poised to Revolutionize Large-scale Medical Studies

Apple introduced ResearchKit on Monday during its Apple Watch and MacBook media event, and within a day Stanford had 11,000 people volunteering to remotely participate in a cardiovascular study. ResearchKit was designed to make it possible for clinics and research facilities to use iPhones to easily collect data from large groups, and based on the initial response it could markedly change how medical study data is collected.

ResearchKit is an open platform Apple developed for collecting data through the iPhone's built-in GPS, accelerometer, gryoscope, microphone, and other sensors, then transmit that information to research centers. Academic research centers already have apps available to track Parkinson's Disease patients, asthma patients, and more.

Anyone who wants to participate in a study simply needs to download the accompanying app, and start collecting data. The Parkinson's study already has more than 5,500 participants, and the asthma study is up over 2,500 participants.

Researchers are finding they suddenly have access to a much broader group of people thanks to ResearchKit, and they're getting data that previously took much longer to collect. "To get 10,000 people enrolled in a medical study normally, it would take a year and 50 medical centers around the country,” Stanford Cardiovascular Health medical director Alan Yeung told SFGate.

That data has the potential to be a powerful research tool for doctors and scientists, assuming they find how to use it effectively. With so many people jumping into the first five studies, researchers will have more data coming in at a faster rate than was previously possible.

Collecting data through iPhones instead of interviews and direct observation can give researchers more accurate information, but it doesn't remove the potential for misinformation to find its way into studies. If the study collects motion data from the iPhone, for example, handing off your phone to a friend could skew results. For studies that include questions, researchers will have to be careful about wording to avoid unintentionally suggesting answers or triggering false memories, too.

That said, using iPhones for data collection can cut down on other false reporting where participants lie about what they're doing to try to make themselves look better or more active.

As more clinics, research institutions, and universities ramp up their own ResearchKit-based studies, we'll have even more opportunities participate in large scale projects, and maybe help solve some medical mysteries in the process.