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Apple’s ResearchKit is Not (Yet) Ready For Primetime – But Soon? A Medical Researcher’s Perspective

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I am a clinician and a clinical trialist. Medical research in some form or another (performing it, consuming it, reviewing it, editing it, etc.) occupies much of my time. Therefore, you can imagine my excitement while watching Apple’s product announcement yesterday when they introduced a new open source software platform called ResearchKit. Apple states ResearchKit could:

“revolutionize medical studies, potentially transforming medicine forever”

ResearchKit allows clinical researchers to have data about various diseases collected directly from a study participant’s iPhone (and perhaps other devices in the future — see below). The software is introduced as a solution to several important problems with current clinical studies, such as:

  • limited participation (the software allows everyone to participate; anyone with an iPhone can download a specific app for every study they want to participate in)
  • frequent data entry (patients can enter data as often as required/desired, rather than only at limited opportunities such as hospital or clinic visits)
  • data fidelity (currently-used paper patient “diaries” are prone to entering implausible or impossible values — the iPhone can limit the range of data entered)

Specifically, the website states:

ResearchKit simplifies recruiting and makes it easy for people to sign up for a study no matter where they live in the world. The end result? A much larger and more varied study group, which provides a more useful representation of the population.

This is a bold claim. We’ll see below that it doesn’t yet ring true.

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The Tao of Wearables

Connected

The hype around wearables is deafening.  I say this from the perspective of someone who saw their application in chronic illness management 15 years ago. Of course, at that time, it was less about wearables and more about sensors in the home, but the concept was the same.

Over the years, we’ve seen growing signs that wearables were going to be all the rage. In 2005, we adopted the moniker ‘Connected Health’ and the slogan, “Bring health care into the day-to-day lives of our patients,” shortly thereafter.  About 18 months ago, we launched Wellocracy, in an effort to educate consumers about the power of self-tracking as a tool for health improvement.  All of this attention to wearables warms my heart.  In fact, Fitbit (the Kleenex of the industry) is rumored to be going public in the near future.

So when the headline, “Here’s Proof that Pricey Fitness Wearables Really Aren’t Worth It,” came through on the Huffington Post this week, I had to click through and see what was going on.  Low and behold this catchy headline was referring to a study by some friends (and very esteemed colleagues) from the University of Pennsylvania, Mitesh Patel and Kevin Volpp.

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Meet the Apple Watch

Apple Watch Med

Surprise #1. It’s not called the iWatch, as many observers had predicted.  Meet the Apple Watch.

Surprise #2. No camera.

Not really-a-surprise: The $350 price tag is now trending on Twitter.

Apple Enters the Healthcare Software Ecosystem

Apple Senior Vice President of Software Engineering Craig Federighi

I am writing this from the Apple Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) here in San Francisco, where I got to substitute for John Halamka at the Keynote (now I keep having urges to raise Alpacas); John missed the most amazing seats [front row center!].

There were many, many, many (I can not recall a set of software announcements of this scale from Apple) new technologies that were announced, demoed and discussed, but I will limit this entry to a few technologies that have implications for healthcare.

If you remember the state of digital music, prior to the introduction of the iPod and iTunes music store, that is where I feel the current state of the healthcare app industry is at; there is no common infrastructure between any of the offerings, and consumers have been somewhat ambivalent towards them as everything is a data island; switching apps causes data loss and is not a pleasant experience for patients.

Amazingly there are 40,000+ apps on the App store at Apple alone, showing huge demand from users, but probably a handful can talk to each other in a meaningful way; this is both on the consumer and professional side of healthcare.

Individual vendors such as Withings have made impressive strides towards data consolidation on the platform, but these are not baked into the OS, so will always have a lower adoption rate. If we take the music industry example further, Apple entering a market with a full push of an ecosystem at their scale, legitimizes the technology in ways that other vendors simply can’t match.

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Moore’s Law in Healthcare – Three Predictions

apple storeJe n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte. —Blaise Pascal

Translation: I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.

As Appley as it gets.

A while ago I was challenged to write about what an Apple-like approach to healthcare might look like.

That challenge has been weighing on me.

For starters, we’re all over Appled aren’t we? Maligned anecdotes about Steve Jobs and the iPhone make their way into almost every presentation remotely related to innovation or technology. Triteness aside, I’ve been stalled because Apple is really a philosophy, not a series of steps or lessons learned. (Although, they are nonetheless methodical.)

Instead, what I’ve been kicking around in the ole noggin are three notional predictions, which I’ll assert are inevitabilities which will fundamentally disrupt healthcare delivery as we know it today.

What follows is about as Appley as I’m likely to get. Despite big-bang product launches, Apple actually plays the long game. They introduce small features into products to affect user behavior years before a flagship product takes advantage of those reprogramed behaviors.

That’s how they disrupt.

I believe there are three meaningful, unstoppable trends, in our current world which will significantly alter healthcare. The steps taken towards these inevitabilities, along the way, are what will define the innovators and leaders. They are the ones who see this future and know how to drive towards it.

The three trends are:

  • Tools and culture which favor individual empowerment
  • The commoditization and automation of diagnosis
  • Accelerated globalization of treatment options

But wait, there’s Moore.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to leave you hanging. I’ll attempt to rationalize each of these points and explain why, particularly when considered as a bundle, they are a powerful force for disruption. And to prime that pump, we have to talk about Gordon Moore.

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The Apple Has Landed

 

Apple transformed portable music players. It redefined what we expect from cell phones. It brought tablet computing to the masses.

Is the company planning to do the same for mobile health?

Some industry watchers think so.

This isn’t a small venture. Apple executives suggest that Healthbook is being positioned as perhaps the key selling point when the company releases its next operating system for iPhone, likely later this year. And the app also may pair with a new “iWatch” that’s under development and will contain biometric sensors.

In his lengthy post, Gurman further details how Healthbook is expected to work. Its interface is “largely inspired” by an existing iPhone application called Passbook, which is intended to centralize a user’s boarding passes, loyalty coupons, and so on in one place. Beyond fitness and diet, the app also has sections devoted to tracking physical activity, our sleeping habits, and hydration.

And Healthbook will offer blood monitoring features—”perhaps the most unique and important elements of the application,” Gurman writes—although it’s unclear exactly what it will track beyond oxygen saturation and glucose levels.

App’s appearance not unexpected

The long-awaited screenshots of Healthbook follow months of reports that Apple’s readying a push into the health care space. While the company’s interest in the sector is nothing new—my team has spent years covering its health-related innovations—Apple’s recent focus has been much more discrete.

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Apple Said to Weigh Digital Health Play

For the last five year or so, digital health has been the Rodney Dangerfield of investment sectors, getting more attention than respect, and garnering more page views than dollars.

However, two important events reported in the last several days suggest all this may be about to change.

First, Fortune’s Dan Primack broke the news on Saturday that Castlight Health — a startup co-founded by U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park in 2008, with the intention of providing increased transparency to healthcare costs – has secretly filed an IPO; an astonishing valuation of around $2B is anticipated.

That’s both impressive growth and serious money, and suggests it’s possible to win – and win big – in digital health.

Second, two complimentary reports from last Friday collectively suggest that Apple is starting to take healthcare very seriously.

For starters, the New York Times reported that Apple executives met with the FDA in December 2013 to discuss mobile medical applications.

In addition, 9to5Mac, a website devoted to “Apple Intelligence,” claimed that the next version of the iPhone operating system, iOS8 – slated for release later this year – will introduce an application codenamed “Healthbook” that is “capable of monitoring and storing fitness statistics such as steps taken, calories burned, and miles walked,” according to 9to5Mac.

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The Ghost of Steve Jobs and Your Bottom Line

The progeny of the iPhone and the iPad will change the shape of your institution — and your balance sheet.

One of the more striking images, to me, out of the online spew in the last few months was from the inauguration. It was a wide view of an inaugural ball. There was the president waltzing with the first lady, and a crowd of several hundred watching them. What was striking about that image was that the several hundred people held several hundred small glowing rectangles in their hands. Practically every member of the crowd was carrying a smartphone and was photographing or videotaping the moment.

The scene was commonplace in its moment, remarkable only in the perspective of history — but such a short history. We could not have imagined so many people carrying smartphones at Obama’s first inaugural only four years ago. Four years before that, we could not have imagined any. The iPhone had not been invented.

There had been attempts at smartphones before the iPhone, and devices like tablets before the iPad. But the rampant success of iOS devices did far more than establish two profitable niche. It changed our relationship with the world.

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Beyond HIT Operability: Open Platforms Are Key

I want to begin by sharing well-known information for the sake of comparison. Both the Apple and Google Android platforms welcome the introduction of new and (sometimes) highly valuable functionality through plug-n-play applications built by completely different companies.

You know that already.

Healthcare IT companies welcome you to pay them great sums of money for enhancements to their closed systems. This is on top of substantial maintenance fees that may or may not lead to hoped-for updates in a timely fashion. (With all due respect to the just-announced CommonWell Health Alliance, Meaningful Use does mandate interoperability. The participants are, in effect, marketing what they have to do anyway to try to differentiate themselves from Epic.)

The respective results of these two divergent approaches are probably also familiar to you.

Consumer technology has taken over the planet and altered almost every aspect of our lives. These companies and industries have flourished by knowing what customers will want before those same customers feel even a faint whiff of desire. We are both witnesses to and beneficiaries of dazzling speed-to-solution successes.

Back on planet health IT, the American College of Physicians reports that the percentage of doctors who are “very dissatisfied” with their EHRs has risen by 15 percent since 2010; in a poll, 39 percent said they would not recommend their EHR to colleagues and 38 percent said they would not buy the same system again.

I will argue that the difference between health IT and every other progressive, mature industry is the application of open source, open standards and, most importantly, open platforms. These platforms supporting interoperability and substitutability have enabled Apple and Google—and NOAA weather data, the Facebook Developer Platform, Amazon Web Services, Salesforce, Twitter, eBay, etc.—to drive innovation and competition instead of stifling it. They have created markets where everyone wins—the client, the application developer and the platform company.

The keys to open platforms are application programming interfaces (APIs) through which a platform-building company (i.e., Apple, Google) welcomes the contributions of clients and other companies. The more elegant the API, the more it can support true interoperability.

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What Apple Can Teach Health Care About Thinking Different


Apple Incorporated has grown to be among the most valuable and most envied companies on earth. Its products are ubiquitous and beloved by many of their users. Last year, the firm generated nearly $26 billion in profits on revenues of $108 billion. When physicians and others working in health care discuss the lessons that the medical establishment can learn from these types of corporate successes, the conversations almost always revolve around the promise of information technologies, such as electronic record keeping or electronic prescription writing, and the need for increased use of these in medical practice. While these technologies are important, the most valuable lesson from Apple’s success is a demonstration of the power of empathy and the subsequent need for health care providers to emotional connect with our patients.

It is widely known that Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak built the first Apple computer in Steve Jobs’ garage; what is not as widely known is that they quickly brought in a third partner, Mike Markkula, to join and guide the company. He began by writing a one page statement entitled “The Apple Marketing Philosophy”. This philosophy stressed only three key components of bedrock company principles; the first and most important was empathy.

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