Apple Aims to Solve the Eternal Medical Research Problem With New Apps

March 9, 2015 Updated: March 13, 2015

Apple is releasing an open-source developers’ platform called ResearchKit that will allow iPhone users to collect personal medical data and share it with medical researchers to find better ways to cure diseases like asthma and Parkinson’s.

One of the problems that plagues medical research is the difficulty of recruiting participants for research studies. ResearchKit will allow doctors to leverage the iPhone’s 700 million user-base to accelerate medical innovation.

“There are hundreds of millions of iPhone users, many of whom would gladly contribute [to medical research] if it was just easier to do this,” said Jeff Williams, Apple’s vice president of operations.

ResearchKit will become available next month. Five individual apps—focused on Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, asthma, and breast cancer—were released simultaneously with the announcement of the platform on Monday.

The Parkinson’s app, mPower, lets users test their hand tremors by tapping on the screen with two fingers. It also detects problems with a user’s manner of walking with the iPhone’s gyroscope and accelerometer. An app for diabetes monitors the user’s behavior and glucose levels. Apple says the platform will allow medical research participants to get faster feedback on how to improve their health.

“The reality is, disease symptoms ebb and flow daily, sometimes even hourly, perhaps the most significant challenge is communication flow. You often don’t hear back until the very end of the study,” Williams said. “[With ResearchKit], the user can see this right on his or her phone, empowering them to understand and influence their health long before a research study is concluded.”

An app for asthma looks to discovers the triggers of the disease by mapping out various pathogens in New York City and matching it with the data of where asthma patients get attacks, all with the help of spirometers and Bluetooth inhalers.

The apps were developed in collaboration with leading medical institutions around the world, including Stanford and the University of Oxford.

Apple has also promised to be careful custodians of the users’ medical data.

“There is nothing more sensitive than your medical data—you decide what apps you participate in, you decide how it’s shared. Apple will not see your data,” Williams said.