Thousands of people are already signing up to ResearchKit medical studies

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ResearchKit
ResearchKit is already living up to its promise. Photo: Apple
Photo: Apple

You can keep your new ultra-thin MacBook and your high-priced Apple Watch; for me, the most exciting thing at Monday’s “Spring Forward” Apple keynote was the announcement of ResearchKit, a new open-source iOS framework that essentially turns your sensor-filled iPhone into a crowdsourcing medical diagnostic device.

The idea is that researchers will be able to tap into Apple’s enormous base of iPhone users to gather medical data. Users simply sign up to participate in huge global studies about diseases like Parkinson’s and diabetes, letting researchers build up giant data sets in a fraction of the amount of time it would normally take. Think Kickstarter for medicine!

And according to Bloomberg, initial reports are really, really positive.

Bloomberg says Stanford University researchers were “stunned” to discover that when they woke up the day after Apple’s keynote, 11,000 people had already signed up for a cardiovascular study on ResearchKit. It would normally “take a year and 50 medical centers around the country” to enroll that many participants.

ResearchKit is the reason nobody can argue that Apple’s not doing its bit to help democratize technology.

“That’s the power of the phone,” Alan Yeung, medical director of Stanford Cardiovascular Health, is quoted as saying.

Similar trends were seen with an asthma study run by the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, where more than 2,500 people had enrolled and consented to participate by Tuesday morning. A Parkinson’s app created by the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research and Sage Bionetworks had 5,589 consenting users by the same time.

While iOS 8’s HealthKit is already being used in top hospitals, ResearchKit has the chance to go much further.

We are at the start of a major paradigm shift for medicine and health in which power is transferred to patients, who can play an active part in monitoring and maintaining their own well-being. Studies have shown that involving patients as active participants in their own healthcare and wellness can lead to better results for all involved.

There have been crowdsourced online medical projects before, but never has there been the ability to so easily target such a large user base of potential participants (Apple has now sold more than 700 million iPhones, although not all of these will still be active.)

ResearchKit is the reason nobody can argue that Apple’s not doing its bit to help democratize technology — or, as Tim Cook has said, to make Apple a “force for good” in the world.

When Steve Jobs left Apple in 1985, his company NeXT was founded following a a meeting with Nobel laureate Stanford biochemist Paul Berg, who told Jobs he wanted a computer that would let him carry out otherwise costly biomedical research and experiments on a personal computer. Today, that same rationale is helping drive ResearchKit.

The technology has the potential to be so significant that I find it impossible to lose too much sleep over a $10,000-plus gold watch that was never designed for me in the first place.