The biggest challenge in medical research is that it takes so long to organize the studies. Depending upon the study, it can take months or even years to recruit enough volunteers to make results viable. And by then, new parameters of the research may have already been introduced. But what if medical research could be done at the click of a button? Tech giant Apple just made it easier for iPhone and iPad users to participate in medical research studies — all with the swipe of a finger.
Apple recently announced its new open-sourced platform called ResearchKit for iOS. With ResearchKit, i-gadget users will be able to search and sign up for specific medical studies on everything from Parkinson’s disease to diabetes, asthma to breast cancer.
The platform allows medical researchers to design an app that can be used in a medical study. If you decide to participate in a study, you will be directed to follow a simple series of instructions. For example, a Parkinson’s disease study asks users to tap the screen with two alternating fingers for 20 seconds. Other studies ask participants to speak into the microphone or send researchers data about their heart rate or other medical symptoms.
One app currently under development by researchers at University of California, Los Angeles will track the aftereffects of breast cancer treatment, asking participants to report on symptoms such as fatigue, cognitive difficulties, sleep disturbances, mood changes and exercise performance after treatment. This kind of instant reporting will allow doctors to capture information about symptoms that might get lost in between 6-month appointments.
Another app, called MyHeart — developed by a team of researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine — will allow users to track physical activity levels and determine their "heart age," through data collected during a six-minute walk test. One of the goals of the MyHeart app is to identify people who may be candidates for heart disease or stroke and suggest lifestyle improvements long before a health issue arises.
In all cases, users will be allowed to see their personal data before they decide whether or not to pass it on to the research team. Of course, that brings up questions about reliability and bias in the studies. For example, people who think they are super fit may be more likely to submit their health data than someone who knows they aren't getting enough exercise. But researchers know this and can prepare for that possibility by designing apps that encourage participants from all walks of life to share their health and fitness data.
Even with data that is skewed by self-reporting, the apps developed via ResearchKit have the potential to change the way medical research is conducted. And that can only be good news for patients seeking the best and most efficient medical treatment.
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