ResearchKit proves a reliable source for health researchers

14 March 2017
In their study, published in the journal Nature Biotechnology, the researchers suggest that health care apps may be reliable, at least in regards to asthma. Since smartphones are almost ubiquitous these days – some 6 billion smarthphones will be used by 2020 – are used every day and are usually close to the users body, these devices provide an easy way to collect health data.

Usually, just as with smartwatches, health data collected with smartphone sensors is deemed lees reliable than information gathered with approved medical devices. So if it is possible to collect reliable health data from them,  researchers will find it much easier to collect information realtime or much more frequently on a massive scale.

ResearchKit finds participants

Also, finding and recruiting participants is a big hurdle for medical studies. Apple launched ResearchKit, a software medical platform, in 2015. It helps researchers recruit participants for studies. These participants can enroll in trials and take surveys or provide other data. Early research partners included big names like the University of Oxford, Stanford Medicine, and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, the Verge writes.

The asthma mobile app from the Mount Sinai study was one of the five disease-specific apps that Apple launched with the initial release of ResearchKit. In the study published in Nature Biotechnology , nearly 50,000 iPhone users downloaded the asthma app. Of these, about 7,600 people enrolled in the six-month study after completing the consent form.


“The Asthma Mobile Health study represents the coming together of academia and industry to benefit from the ubiquity of smartphones and harness the power of citizen-science to modernize the clinical research process,” said Eric Schadt, PhD, senior author on the paper and the Jean C. and James W. Crystal Professor of Genomics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and Founding Director of the Icahn Institute for Genomics and Multiscale Biology. “We now have the ability to capture rich research data from thousands of individuals to better characterize ‘real world’ patterns of disease, wellness, and behavior. This approach provides a more comprehensive and accurate view of our patients that was not feasible in the past due to logistical limitations and prohibitive costs.”

Measuring up

People in the study took surveys on how they treated their asthma. Next to that, the app provided information about location and air quality. The scientists then looked at how this patient-reported data measured up when compared to external factors. For example, around the time there were fires in Washington state, patients in the area reported worse asthma symptoms, as might be expected, suggesting the data was fairly reliable. They were similarly able to correlate data related to heat and pollen.

‘Our platform enabled prospective collection of longitudinal, multidimensional data (e.g., surveys, devices, geolocation, and air quality) in a subset of users over the 6-month study period,’the researchers write. ‘Consistent trending and correlation of interrelated variables support the quality of data obtained via this method. We detected increased reporting of asthma symptoms in regions affected by heat, pollen, and wildfires.

Limitations, challenges

There are still limitations when using smartphone-collecte data, the researchers point out. this way of gathering data is good for studies that only last for a short amount of time and that need to quickly enroll participants across the country. ‘Potential challenges with this technology include selection bias, low retention rates, reporting bias, and data security. These issues require attention to realize the full potential of mobile platforms in research and patient care.

Low retention rate is a big issue. In this study, about 85 percent of people completed at least one survey, while about 30 percent completed more than one over six months. The lack of sustained interest meant incomplete information. Furthermore it’s possible that the kind of people who voluntarily download these apps might not be representative of the general population, in part because many people have Android phones (some 85 versus 15 percent for the iPhone). That makes the data limited in scope.

Ethical issues

Because people were filling out their own surveys — a notoriously unreliable source of information, The Verge notes -  there may be problems with the data they generate as well. ResearchKit can also run into ethical issues when it comes to data security and making sure people understand all of the risks of volunteering their information.

So, enough challenges and limitations still excist. But the promise of smartphones and other mobile or wearable devices as reliable gatherers of health information was given a boost nontheless by the Mount Sinai study.