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October 23, 2015

How Apple's latest projects—and hospital partners—could change research

Daily Briefing

Dan Diamond, Executive Editor

Apple's push into health care has gotten a lot of attention—we've certainly tracked it closely on the Daily Briefing—and most focus has been on the company's new HealthKit software or its Apple Watch.

But I'm starting to think that the third prong of Apple's health care strategy—ResearchKit—may hold the most potential to immediately affect the U.S. health system.

ResearchKit is Apple's attempt to bring together health care researchers and potential patients in a new, unprecedented way. Essentially, researchers can post clinical trials through the App Store, where Apple's millions of users can easily browse the trials, sign up if interested, and download the relevant apps.

And while HealthKit and Apple Watch could shake up the health care industry, the gains thusfar have been unclear; we don't know yet whether HealthKit is successfully steering useful clinical data to hospitals and doctors, and Apple Watch sales remain a mystery.

However, ResearchKit has already delivered on one of its stated objectives: Helping researchers find participants for their clinical trials. One Stanford study, for instance, saw 10,000 people sign up overnight after it was posted on the Apple store—a blockbuster number of registrants.

Can Apple really 'transform' health care?

On a recent episode of the Weekly Briefing, Dan, Rivka Friedman, and Rob Lazerow discussed how Apple wants to change health care. Their conversation starts around the 4-minute mark, and you can listen to the show here or by clicking on the player below.

Learning more about the three new projects

Apple's health care strategy is back in the spotlight because three more ResearchKit projects—all launched by premier medical centers—just joined the store this month. After seeing demos, I was struck by how each had potential to use Apple's products, capabilities, and the company's incredible reach to develop something new.

Duke researchers, for instance, are taking advantage of the built-in video cameras in the iPhone and iPad for an app called Autism & Beyond. Here's a very simple explanation of how it works: As a child uses the app, the app simultaneously uses the camera to study the child's face and recognizes patterns that help track the relative risk of autism. (After seeing a demo and talking with the research team, I was pretty excited about the potential applications.)

Johns Hopkins researchers, meanwhile, have unveiled their intriguing EpiWatch app. It's designed to track the involuntary motions of patients with epilepsy, and it's the first ResearchKit app to be designed explicitly for the Apple Watch.

As Zachary Tracer writes at Bloomberg, the researchers' ultimate goal is to help develop immediate interventions for epileptic patients.

"[S]omeday soon … iPhones and watches may be able to recognize when someone's having an epileptic seizure, and call for help," Tracer points out.

Meanwhile, Oregon Health & Sciences University has relaunched their MoleMapper app, which uses a built-in camera to help users track their moles and categorize the changes over time. It could be incredibly useful to help curb the threat of melanomas, OHSU's Sansy Leachmann told me.

Here's an important reminder: "Launching a study" doesn't necessarily mean "finding a cure." I've spoken with all the researchers involved, and every single one was cautious about producing overnight results. Even the creators of the autism app—which could have important ramifications for speeding up how autism is diagnosed—aren't trying to replace the importance of in-person diagnosis.

But the goals here are far-sighted, and the growing list of organizations that have stepped forward to work with Apple is notable.

"The efforts and indications of major provider organizations working on Apple Watch-type projects is impressive," the Advisory Board's Ken Kleinberg told me. He's cautious about the immediate benefits, but thinks we need to keep watching the products designed for the Watch—and Apple's other devices, too.

"It will be interesting to see the results," Kleinberg added, "but I am optimistic of the positive value."

Join the conversation

Listen to Dan, Rob Lazerow, and Rivka Friedman debate health care's biggest stories on a brand-new episode of the Weekly Briefing podcast. This week: They argue over the Theranos scandal, break down a new study on high-deductible health plans, and talk about Jurassic Park's connection to health care.

You can listen to the show here or by clicking on the player below.

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