When smartphones first began collecting health data such as users’ heart rates and number of steps walked, doctors were dubious about the medical value of information gathered by a phone.
Three years later, doctors have changed their minds, thanks to a series of pioneering medical studies that demonstrated the efficacy of cellphone-based medical research.
The studies have confirmed that surprisingly large numbers of people can be recruited into long-term research studies on mobile phones; that their consent to participate can be obtained much more easily than in conventional studies; and that the medical data obtained can be made safely anonymous, collected and analyzed by advanced algorithms in ways never before imagined.
Indeed, so much data can be collected automatically and accurately via mobile phones—without participants or lab workers having to log it—that some scientists believe it will be easier to conduct and monitor many trials involving drugs or exercise in larger populations than have been examined up to now in conventional studies.
What’s more, doctors believe it will be possible to give participants feedback not only about their own health but also about the population at large much faster than is possible with conventional medical studies, which often appear in scientific journals years after they’re conducted. Participants could quickly see, for example, the beneficial effects of exercise or diet and adjust their behavior accordingly.
Most of the studies were made possible by an open-source smartphone platform called ResearchKit, which was released free to researchers by Apple Inc. in 2015. Doctors and scientists can use it to create iPhone apps that collect data such as weight and blood pressure that are stored in the Health app on iPhones.
Because many more cellphones, especially in less affluent areas and in developing countries, use the Android operating system, an Android version of the platform called ResearchStack was created by scientists at Cornell University. Sensing the utility of these devices, Alphabet Inc.’s Verily Life Sciences subsidiary recently unveiled a watch, called the Study Watch, that will collect data on users’ heart rate and movement for studies of a number of diseases.
Initially, five studies were launched in 2015 using ResearchKit, covering asthma, breast cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and Parkinson’s. Studies involving epilepsy, autism and moles were added later, and a new Harvard Medical School study to monitor the health of National Football League players is just getting under way.