Apple announced numerous products yesterday (and upped the prices on others), but ResearchKit, the company's new medical research and health platform, is clearly the technology with the most potential to actually improve people's lives. Services like it are already at work around the globe, helping doctors and patients manage symptoms and improve health. Here's why it's important, and how it could actually change health care for the better.
In a press conference dominated by new consumer gadgets like the Apple Watch and the new MacBook, Apple's ResearchKit stuck out like a sore thumb. The platform aims to give anyone with an iOS device the opportunity to participate in medical research, join programs that can help them track their symptoms, or share information with their doctors. Like any new technology, it will take some time to ramp up (Australians can't take part yet), but the eventual uses — and some already in development — have the potential to really help people.
Quantified Self Works Best When Someone Qualified Reviews The Data
"Quantified Self" is the idea that the key to improving your life is to track everything you do and use that information to identify patterns and make positive changes. For many of us, that means tracking our steps, logging our meals and our workouts, and even tracking our sleep. But not all of the data we get from those trackers is reliable, and the information we see is even trickier to interpret if you're not sure what you're seeing, or how it plays into your overall health picture.
That's where ResearchKit could step in to make a difference. By linking your phone with health institutions and research organisations, the information you log, steps you take, and trials you participate in all go back to the people who designed them — presumably doctors and researchers who are able (and eager) to sift through the information you provide. As doctors specifically get on board with tools like this, they can introduce tests and tools that let you log your meals, steps, and activity, and help you understand exactly why you're walking 10,000 steps a day but not losing weight, or sleeping eight hours a night but still having trouble staying awake during the day.
In short, we can track our own activity as much as we like, but unless we're knowledgeable enough to look at the complete picture and understand what we're seeing (as well as identify outliers and see trends in the data) we're just spinning our wheels. If ResearchKit can build a bridge between that information and the people most qualified to examine it and offer us feedback, the possible implications for health on an individual level are huge.
Where ResearchKit-Like Technology Is Already In Use
Apple's approach here is interesting because it transforms the devices that millions of people already own into tools that can improve their health. However, many research institutions have been using technology like ResearchKit for their own trials and experiments for years. For example, a Madison, Wisconsin company called Propeller Health has been working with hospitals and public health agencies for years to help asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) sufferers manage their symptoms, track their movements, log their attacks and when they have to take medication, and funnel all of that information back to their doctor.
In a pilot program in Louisville, Kentucky, asthma sufferers were given GPS-enabled Bluetooth-connected rescue inhalers and asked to go about their daily lives as normal. Every time they used their inhaler, the device mounted on it would log the person's position, send it to their smartphone, and their smartphone would log the event, where they were, the time of day, and some other useful information about the time, place, and duration of the attack. The impact of the research was immediate.
For one patient, her doctors were able to review the data her inhaler and smartphone collected, and quickly noted that she semi-regularly had asthma attacks when walking through a park that was close to her office during her lunch hour. At first her doctors assumed she was allergic to something in the park, but upon closer inspection and testing, her records revealed she wasn't — there were no unusual plants or animals in the park that were uncommon near her home. By cross-referencing where she had her attacks with the time of day, as well as wind patterns and weather data from weather stations in the same city, researchers were able to determine that a chicken farm — a few miles upwind of the park and at higher elevation — was the culprit. On the days she reported attacks, the wind was blowing down from the farm, bringing with it the allergens that likely caused her attacks. Without the kind of real-time tracking platform they used to collect this information, they likely would never have been able to put the pieces together.
The whole experiment was outlined in this old NHK World documentary, and you can read more about how the platform works in this article at TheBlaze.
The impact of the experiment went far beyond one woman's health. The pilot program here had hundreds of participants, all using the same internet-connected health tracking software in the same town. The city's public health administrator was able to work with the local research hospital to track asthma cases and attacks all over the city, with the eventual goal of improving air quality and — in the long term — reducing the number of asthma sufferers in their community.
How ResearchKit Could Make "Big Health Data" A Reality Everywhere
Apple's ResearchKit offers companies like Propeller Health and municipalities like Louisville a common platform to build experiments and public tests like this — all without having to reinvent the wheel themselves first. In the future, we could see programs like this pop up all over the globe, with lower entry costs and time to deployment. And since every iOS device in the wild will already be compatible with the tools those researchers choose to build, your doctor could someday hand you a device to wear on your arm, tell you to download a ResearchKit app, and come back for a follow-up appointment in a few months, after he's collected enough information to diagnose your condition.
But what about privacy and security? We've established that lots of health companies are selling your data, but Apple went out of its way yesterday to say that Apple never sees the data you provide through ResearchKit — which is good, considering much of it will be used either for medical research, studies, or individual patient care. However, who the research institutions, hospitals, and doctors share that data with is up to them.
Similarly, Apple said yesterday that ResearchKit will be open source. That means, presumably, that security researchers will be able to poke and prod it from the outside, make sure leaks and holes are plugged, vulnerabilities are identified, and the apps that are built for it are equally secure (or, at least, can be secured). Open source in this case doesn't make me believe that we'll see ResearchKit on non-Apple or non-iOS devices anytime soon (so expect Google and Microsoft to make their own pushes in this realm shortly), but it does mean that developers, non-profits, and cash-strapped medical professionals who actually want to help people can get involved and do just that.
Where HealthKit Goes Gimmicky, ResearchKit May Actually Help People
Apple's HealthKit follows in the same vein as most other fitness trackers and apps. It will track your activity levels, estimate calories burned, help you track your diet — all those things you're already used to. That's all great, but we've established that an info dump doesn't equal better health. Don't get that confused with ResearchKit. By giving your data to the people who can actually use it to help you (and to help others), and by offering a platform for those same people to build better tools, ResearchKit already has real promise.
In Apple's announcement we saw a ResearchKit app designed to help people with Parkinson's Disease measure dexterity, balance, and agility. There's another app designed to help diabetes patients manage their conditions, one aimed to help people gauge their risk of heart disease, and another for breast cancer patients to help track their post-treatment experiences. I can't wait to see what comes next.