Apple ResearchKit Promises To Revolutionize Medical Research

Apple surprised everyone on Monday by announcing ResearchKit, a new set of tools for the medical community to improve studies and research. Apple believes tapping the power of the crowd will lead to better healthcare for all of us.

ResearchKit works hand-in-hand with HealthKit, part of Apple's iOS 8 for the iPhone and iPad. The company said 900 apps are already taking advantage of HealthKit's tools to track and manager personal fitness and health information. ResearchKit can tap into that data and make it accessible to medical researchers. 

"Medical researchers are doing some of the most important work in the world, and they’re committed to making life-changing discoveries that benefit us all. To help, we’ve created ResearchKit, an open source software framework that makes it easy for researchers and developers to create apps that could revolutionize medical studies, potentially transforming medicine forever," said Apple. 

ResearchKit is open source. Apple says anyone can contribute no matter what platform they may be using. Apple believes the open source framework is the best way to encourage researchers to share their apps and methods. The actual SDK and associated APIs won't be made available until April, but Apple has provided a small number of details about what developers will be able to do. 

The three basic modules are surveys, active tasks, and informed consent. Researchers and developers can use the modules as they are, or expand upon them to suit their own needs. Apple says ResearchKit is flexibile enough to handle most research situations. The Active Tasks module has its own set of parameters for tracking, such as motor activities, fitness, cognition, and voice. 

There are some limitations, too. For example, ResearchKit doesn't include pssive background data collection (APIs like HealthKit and CoreMotion already support this); secure communication mechanisms between your app and your server; nor the ability to schedule surveys and active tasks for your participants. It also doesn't automatically make your app or research HIPAA-compliant, which is vitally important

The critical element to ResearchKit is its scale. "Numbers are everything," said Dr. Eduardo Sanchez, American Heart Association. "The more people who contribute their data, the bigger the numbers, the truer the representation of a population, and the more powerful the results. A research platform that allows large amounts of data to be collected and shared — that can only be a positive thing for medical research."

Apple's vision is a one in which researchers and willing participants are able to find one another easily. It already had several apps available gathering data about asthma, diabetes, Parkinson's, breast cancer, and cardiovascular disease. Apple has the support of medical organizations, too, including the American Heart Assocation, Avon Foundation for Women, Dara-Farber Cancer Institute, Penn Medicine, the University of Rochester Medical Center, and others.

Apple said more details will be available next month. 

Eric Zeman I am a journalist who covers the mobile telecommunications industry. I freelance for ProgrammableWeb and other online properties.