The latest convergence of healthcare and smartphone technology is Apple's ResearchKit, an open source framework that allows developers to create apps specifically designed for medical research studies. The open source element makes these studies accessible to everyone, exploiting the power of the collective to continuously refine and build on existing technologies.
The potency of Research Kit has already been celebrated by major hospitals and universities. Mount Sinai's Icahn School of Medicine Asthma Health App, University of Rochester, and Sage BioNetworks' mPower app are the framework's first generation of apps. Both apps were able to draw between 8,000 and 15,000 research participants, demonstrating the universal advantage of ResearchKit and its ability to recruit large numbers of research subjects. Before Research Kit, recruiting as many as ten subjects in a traditional research study was a challenge. Now, thanks to the omnipresence of the iPhone, Research Kit creates a striking ease that attracts participants to clinical studies.
"In normal studies, a clinician would walk a would-be participant through the research and gain their consent for their data to be used. It can be a lengthy process with pages of forms to be read and signed," explained Dr. Ray Dorsey, a neurologist at the University of Rochester.
While ResearchKit studies have eliminated the draining consent process, Dorsey adds that they also provide transparency to participants regarding how the research works and where their data is going. The depth of the data provided and the demonstration of the interplay among different variables related to the ailment is additionally impressive. This would not have been possible with traditional research studies. The mPower app, for instance, has shown a relationship between the users' location, time as measured by their phone, and the weather report for that place, and how these factors affect the occurrence of their symptoms.
ResearchKit does not come without its grey areas. The iOS platform inherently eludes key demographics - females, seniors, and Android users. Moreover, the risk of security breaches commonly associated with open source and data sharing platforms leaves some users apprehensive that their data could get compromised.
The vigour of ResearchKit overrides the shortcomings, which critics agree are remedial and only serve to provide opportunities for growth. Stanford's ResearchKit app MyHeart Counts is partnering with the Women's Health Initiative to target female participants. Apple has also added additional biometrics, such as period tracking, which will open up new opportunities for reproductive health studies. On the flipside, being an open source framework may help with privacy, according to Adrian Gropper, Chief Technology Officer of the non-profit organization Patient Privacy Rights.
"Open source encourages people to report bugs in the software and get them fixed," Gropper told Bloomberg Business. "The gold standard is open source because security by obscurity has been shown not to work."
The latest numbers from Apple state that 10,000 users have used ResearchKit and that number is not even the most recent update. The size of the data is also nonpareil. Variables can be collected numerous times a day over any number of days or years, thus providing a highly more detailed and comprehensive profile of the user that was before never established.
"I don't think we're scratching the surface of what we can do, I don't think we're even close to realizing its full potential," Dorsey said.
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