Apple’s ResearchKit Can Significantly Increase Study Sample Sizes


Admittedly, I’m probably an Apple Fan, but I can’t seem to care about the new Apple Watch.  If I could go full Dick Tracy and replace my phone with a watch, I might care, but until then my wrist will remain unburdened.  Yesterday’s Apple Event where the Apple Watch had a release date set was therefore met with a resounding “Meh,” but one thing during the presentation did catch a lot of people by surprise and that was the release of ResearchKit.

Via Apple:

Until now, taking part in a medical study has usually required traveling to a hospital or facility to complete tasks and fill out questionnaires. With ResearchKit, you can use your iPhone to perform activities and generate data wherever you are, providing a source of information that is more objective than ever possible before. This is invaluable to the progress of medical research — and we can all have a hand in it.

What’s more, many of the apps built with ResearchKit will enable you to track your own data and potentially discover correlations between symptoms and daily actions such as diet or exercise.

This new open source toolkit is an extension of the exisiting HealhKit that already launched on Apple devices which allows users to track basic vitals along with daily activity assuming they are constantly with their phones or recording data with Apple compatible devices.  As I mentioned previously, HealthKit could not be considered a first step into the Healthcare world.  I really don’t think ResearchKit can be considered stepping into the Healthcare world either as long as we narrowly define Healthcare as medical care or sick care.  Despite the false display of enthusiasm some EHR companies and hospital organizations have shown about intergrating EHRs and Apple’s HealthKit data, I’m still not convinced the vast majority of doctors find value in any of the data that is being collected by these devices.

ResearchKit, however, might provide a significant impact in a somewhat narrow scope of medical research.  One major limiting factor of a number of research studies is their sample size.  The smaller the number of participants in the study, the more difficult it is to extrapolate the results of the study to the greater population.  A lot of research studies have their sample sizes limited by logistical factors: they can only pull from the local population of where the study is being done.  Theoretically though, it will be possible to greatly expand a sample size through ResearchKit because geography is not necessarily a limiting factor.  For a number of areas of research, this could be a huge deal.  As detailed in a Radiolab episode, comapines like Facebook, Apple, and Google are dealing with sample sizes for their “experiments” in the millions, while clinical research is sometimes lucky to get deep into the double digits.  Murky privacy and ethical issues aside (Which are addressed on the medical research side and not necessarily on the marketing research side), this could be a winning partnership.

As I constrained before though, this is regarding a somewhat narrow scope of medical research.  ResearchKit will prove helpful for studies that require participants to respond to a study, record a food log, or give basic vitals and activity information.  Studies that require actual medical devices to asses study participants (Reminder: the iPhone is not one) are still out of luck.

Again, this does not mean Apple has or ever will enter the medical software world.  Would it be cool if we could get EHR vendors to utilize some sort of Apple standard (or any standard really)? Yeah, that’d be cool, but don’t count on it anytime soon.


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