Early word on ResearchKit apps: So far, a success

Apple offered up the iPhone to medical researchers as a new way to collect hard-to-get health data two months ago, and now we have an idea of how the company's newly open-sourced ResearchKit initiative is paying off.

Mobile health developers LifeMap Solutions worked with New York's Mount Sinai to develop one of the first ResearchKit apps, Asthma Health, and LifeMap CEO Corey Bridges has a few takeaways eight weeks in.

Bridges published the first official ResearchKit blog post with answers to ResearchKit questions like whether users would continue to use the app after the novelty wore off and how they would react to the e-consent process needed to participate in the asthma study. To participate in medical research, participants usually need to read and sign paper documents to consent to being studied. ResearchKit apps transfer that process to an iPhone app.

"Based on preliminary data for the Asthma Health app, over half of our users not only complete the e-consent process, they also come back the very next day to use the app," Bridges wrote. "This is a very high rate of return for any app, let alone a health-related app."

Sustaining interest in a medical app

Consent is easy. Actually getting people to use the app regularly so researchers can gather meaningful medical data is tough. Asthma Health asks asthma patients to record their symptoms throughout the day and how those symptoms affect their routine. The app also asks people to report their asthma triggers and document their visits to the hospital and the doctor, and to input their medication (and whether that changes).

Asthma Health pushes out a weekly reminder to encourage people to open the app and check in to record all of that information, which keeps engagement rates higher than typical for a health app. Bridges thinks the app's demographic of early adopters could also have an affect on those high numbers.

"Our working theory is that Asthma Health users are motivated by the goal of supporting research that helps the entire patient community," he said in the blog post. "We plan to test this theory more extensively in the near future."

More than 60,000 people have signed up to use the first ResearchKit apps, which allow patients to track symptoms of breast cancer treatment, Parkinson's disease, heart disease, diabetes, and asthma. More than 11,000 people registered to use Stanford's MyHeart Counts app in the first day it launched, which is more patients than most medical studies find to participate in a whole year. If Asthma Health's data holds true, ResearchKit apps will be able to collect far more information than standard medical studies, which is the whole point of ResearchKit.

Apple just opened the initiative to all medical researchers, so we expect to soon see a wave of new health apps collecting data on all types of conditions. If recent reports prove true, some of those apps could allow you to submit your DNA for testing and analysis. And once ResearchKit comes to Apple Watch apps, Apple's effect on medical research could be far more significant than anyone ever expected.


Caitlin McGarry

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