iPhone a day keeps the doctors away


Matthew Tessler, Deputy Opinion Editor

Apple announced a new open source software platform called Research Kit at its March 9 Spring
Forward event. This program, currently available only on the iPhone, allows medical researchers to develop apps that collect information from participants for medical studies. While this program has many ethical and logistical issues to address before it can become a serious tool for studies, its simple and easy-to-use interface could make medical studies far more comprehensive. If developed correctly, colleges would not have to be littered with tear-off flyers looking for test subjects for studies, and it would have a serious impact on the medical field and our health.

The development platform will allow medical researchers to gather data from the accelerometer, gyroscope, microphone and GPS sensors gathered from the iPhone Health Kit. The opt-in studies are advertised in the App Store. The first of these studies to be released cover a huge range of subjects, including asthma, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, breast cancer and cardiovascular disease. The primary benefit of this venture is that it will give researchers access to a huge pool of test subjects. Clinical studies are often hampered by the fact that they cannot get a large and diverse sample size. Apple’s customer base is not perfect, but it is much larger and more representative than the pool that researchers would usually have access to. This could make studies more comprehensive, accurate and ultimately more helpful in finding solutions for a multitude of illnesses.

There are, of course, many ethical concerns to consider when handling the health data of individuals. Making sure participants remain anonymous and unassociated with their data will be a challenge, but Apple is in a unique position to deal with these issues. Apple is no stranger to ethics, private data and regulators — Apple Pay deals with sensitive information too and so far the company has been able to keep the data under control. Still, health data is arguably more private and more valuable than financial data. The success of this concept will depend on their ability to control
the data.

If this development platform reaches maturity, medical research and its benefactors — the human race — will greatly benefit. Imagine the Apple Watch, a few generations old, collecting massive pools of data with its heart rate, blood pressure and glucose sensors, in addition to its gyrometer and accelerometer. Researchers could expand their studies and the field could become more representative as a wider range of health statistics are collected. Apple has already teamed up with IBM in order to synthesize health data with its supercomputer’s health application, Watson Health, and making the program available to medical researchers will expand its application. This may become possible in the near future, thanks to
Apple’s ingenuity.

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.

A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, April 16 print edition. Email Matthew Tessler at [email protected].