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Weekly Trend: Is ResearchKit Really Poised to Disrupt Medical Studies?

Peter Lougee

Energy Columnist, 1776

Last week, Apple made headlines again by debuting the Apple Watch in a highly anticipated event that marked the first new product since the iPad. What fewer headlines talked about, however, is a piece of software that could have an outsized effect on the healthcare industry: the ResearchKit.

The launch of ResearchKit marks Apple’s most “clinically-focused” application yet, MobiHealth News reports. The new ResearchKit has the ability to directly contribute to ongoing clinical studies that are focused on specific diseases and conditions by allowing users to both seek and opt into trials through an iPhone application. Through user input, the ResearchKit application can track weight, blood pressure, glucose, inhaler use and other data that can be transmitted to and evaluated by the medical institution with which the trial is associated.

ResearchKit doesn’t officially launch for another month, but initial apps are already available and are focused on “Parkinson’s, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, asthma, and breast cancer,” according to the Apple event.

The utility of ResearchKit extends beyond medical trials. Doctors, hospitals and other medical groups can develop applications that leverage ResearchKit to track symptoms or simply communicate with patients. This can be accomplished cheaply and easily because, as Life Hacker writes, ResearchKit is also open source. Although it is unlikely that consumers will see ResearchKit on the competing Android platform, it does mean that Apple has chosen to open their software – and its data – to non-profits and other groups that wouldn’t traditionally have the funds to license the application. This fact, combined with the “hundreds of millions of iPhone users” globally could finally usher in what Life Hacker calls true Big Health Data. With a potential sample population of the iPhone user base, HealthKit could be poised to transmit a previously unheard of amount of data for medical research. Wired even reports that the sheer volume of data will reduce the problem of selection bias inherent in only receiving data from a typical iPhone user.

There are, however, lingering concerns over privacy with ResearchKit. As The Verge reports, many experts have already raised concerns over who sees what data, and even the general ethics involved in submitted data via the ResearchKit. For example, there is currently no way to verify that a user’s ‘Yes’ answer to the question, ‘Are you over 18?’ is accurate when it comes giving permission to share data. Indeed, although Apple says that the company itself will never see a user’s medical data, their privacy policy likely legally ends when the data leave the iPhone—so what then? What policies govern a user’s medical data? Does HIPAA extend to these kinds of medical transactions?

Although no one doubts the potential power of Apple’s new healthcare tool, the company and its research partners should consider the nuances of such a data transaction first if ResearchKit’s potential is to be fully realized.

Peter Lougee

Energy Columnist, 1776

Peter is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer with a Master's Degree in Public Policy from American University. In addition to startups, Peter likes coffee, books and whiskey.