Blog Post

Apple Targets Clinical Research With Second Foray Into Healthcare

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Apple has a way of introducing products that transform entire industries and make consumers wonder how they ever got by beforehand (when’s the last time you carried around a bunch of CDs?). So when the largest tech company in the world announced in 2014 that it was getting into healthcare, industry professionals wondered whether Apple’s HealthKit was capable of achieving iPhone-like appeal and utility in a notoriously complicated field.

Nearly 2 years later, the results are in – and they’re mixed. HealthKit has gained a solid user base among patients and a select few healthcare organizations interested in using the tool to support patient engagement and population health efforts. And the health app’s ability to aggregate data from multiple sources, send it to providers in a standard format, and integrate with commonly used EHRs reflects the same seamlessness and ease of use that have come to characterize Apple’s products. However, relatively few providers have actually altered the way they provide care in order to leverage this information. Absent the pressure of any government mandate to use patient-generated data, and with few reimbursement opportunities, providers have had little incentive to accommodate HealthKit’s functionality.

Apple’s second healthcare product, however, may offer certain providers a different kind of motivation.

ResearchKit is an open-source platform created for and marketed to clinical researchers. The framework offers predefined modules for developing surveys to evaluate potential research participants, consent documents to explain the study and obtain consent, and active tasks that use iPhone functionality to track movements, take measurements, and record data.

Unlike HealthKit, where the benefits of adoption may not interest all providers, the potential advantages of ResearchKit should be immediately clear to researchers. Put simply, ResearchKit can enable researchers to run studies remotely. The ability to conduct administrative tasks and gather the information needed for a study without geographical constraints removes an enormous barrier that traditional researchers face. The below table illustrates how ResearchKit’s technology stacks up against a composite of elements commonly found in a traditional clinical study.

ResearchKit Traditional Study
Researchers use the survey module to design a series of questions to send to a pool of potential participants. Reponses are collected and organized in real time to identify qualified participants. Researchers develop questions, identify potential participant pools, promote the study within the pools, then send questions to interested parties. Responses are organized and analyzed at a later time.
Researchers use a consent module to communicate details of the study to participants and obtain their consent. Researchers interview participants to discuss the study and obtain consent. This often requires each participant to travel to the clinic or lab.
Researchers use iPhone’s accelerometer functions to test and record participants’ gait, balance, coordination, and speed, and the GPS gyroscope to record a participant’s motion, steps taken, reaction time, and heart rate. Researchers perform exercise tests in the clinic, testing and record participants’ gait, balance, coordination, and speed. They also rely on patients to bring submissions (e.g., activity logs, pedometer reports, heart monitors) to the clinic.
Researchers use iPhone’s multi-touch display to conduct spatial memory and visual reference tests on participants, as well as the microphone and speaker to test participants’ hearing and voice patterns. Researchers use devices located in the clinic to conduct spatial memory, visual reference tests, and hearing and voice patterns.

Any clinical researcher looking at this comparison is bound to see opportunities for value. Consider the savings on administrative resources typically needed to schedule appointments and collect and analyze data. In some instances, it may not even be necessary to purchase clinical devices to conduct tests. Researchers no longer have to spend precious funding on recruiting and managing local study participants. Access to a global pool of participants and mobilized interactions can streamline studies even further.

Now that researchers can see what is possible, the challenge will be for healthcare business leaders to determine what is practical. We will be exploring these possibilities in a series of follow-up posts that examine the current funding environment, legal and operational risks, the approaches and barriers experienced by actual users, and our recommendations for success.