Apple's ResearchKit: Ready for healthcare or far from useful?

Some industry observers say the technology is poised for greatness while others insist it has a long way to go.
By Bill Siwicki
01:48 PM
Apple ResearchKit in healthcare

Apple’s ResearchKit is either poised for greatness or has a long way to go, depending on who you ask. 

ResearchKit was launched two years ago and uses iPhones to gather health data, enabling researchers to conduct studies using that information.

STAT reported that Apple’s ResearchKit is on the verge of becoming medically useful for healthcare researchers. Yet experts in the field have varying views on its status. 

[Also: Mount Sinai work with Apple ResearchKit shows how smartphones surpass traditional study methods]

“There are two types of ResearchKit apps being launched today – one uses existing surveys, dashboards, phone sensor data and the integration of external data sources such as weather and air quality, and this method is useful for research and ready for scale today,” said John Reites, chief product officer and partner at Thread, a patient research firm that conducts its research via smartphones and wearables.

The other type of ResearchKit app includes novel data collection approaches and endpoints developed by researchers like Epiwatch, Autism Speaks and many others, Reites said. “We are seeing these new digital endpoints being developed, piloted and targeted for validation studies today to become standards for tomorrow,” he said.

Clinical researchers are embracing the benefits of remote patient research, but they are challenged with operationalizing it, Reites said.

[Also: Apple hires Ricky Bloomfield, MD, who pioneered use of HealthKit and ResearchKit at Duke]

“Finding the right technologies and consultative support to use mobile health approaches is a cultural shift for many organizations,” he said. “When the shift is made, however, validated instruments like ePRO, medical devices and these novel digital endpoints become an option to change how research is conducted with patients.”

Open-source mobile software platforms like ResearchKit have the potential for both significant patient engagement as well as data connectivity that could improve the way medical data is gathered, managed and analyzed, said Brian Kalis, managing director of digital health services at global consulting firm Accenture.

“Beyond its more expected uses, Apple’s HealthKit, CareKit and ResearchKit also are being tested to collate data and monitor patients remotely among some of the U.S.’s top hospitals: Stanford Medicine, Oxford and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute,” Kalis said.

Across the healthcare industry, appropriately engaging patients based on their expectations for a more interconnected world is a critical key to success, as is the ability to use data to generate useful insights, Kalis added.

“In the coming years, we are likely to see more non-health and wellness organizations try to enter this space, like Apple has done, given both consumers and economic pressures demand a solution to obesity and other diseases in which these types of platforms could play a role,” he said.

As additional players enter the market, the technology will likely become even further refined and poised to become a mainstream medical tool, Kalis said.

“Compared to other industries, and given the level of regulation often involved, the healthcare industry is sometimes seen as a slower adopter of certain technologies,” he said. “However, there are many examples of healthcare companies taking advantage of new and innovative technologies to create value and benefit for patients. The evidence base from early adopters of Apple ResearchKit is building, which is helping advance the pace of adoption across healthcare organizations.”

Some players in the industry, however, do not have as high an opinion on ResearchKit being on the verge of being medically useful.

ResearchKit is far from being medically useful as it’s not really solving the marketing and management issues that are plaguing the research world: participant engagement and logistical complexity, said Matthew Amsden, CEO of ProofPilot, a firm that conducts research studies.

“With ResearchKit, Apple wanted to leverage the mass penetration of iPhones to collect health information and allow researchers to conduct studies using the data,” Amsden said. “But, even with Apple’s powerful PR machine, most studies involving ResearchKit languish with few users and high attrition rates, as so many general consumer apps do. The asthma study published in Nature had a 2 percent completion rate, making it impossible to create any generalizable findings.”

To date, most ResearchKit apps have yet to support basic study components like managing study visits, connecting with clinical data, creating unique experiences across randomized study arms, issuing treatments and interventions – things that few, if any, ResearchKit-supported studies have yet to attempt, Amsden said.

“If Apple wants to overcome this, they will ultimately have to focus on educating researchers in the business of app making – in addition to creating and launching a study, researchers now have to think about how to build an app that can stand out in an ocean of more than two million apps to attract participants and keep them engaged for a sufficient amount of time, as most studies take one year.”

Twitter: @SiwickiHealthIT
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