Apple wants to turn iPhones from across the world into devices that collect scientific data for medical research. Back in March 2015 the Cupertino company introduced ResearchKit during its Spring Forward event, following that up a year later with the announcement of CareKit.
ResearchKit is an open-source software framework designed for medical and health research. The premise is simple: doctors and scientists will use the software to launch iPhone apps that can frequently gather accurate data from volunteers. Researchers will essentially be able to ask iPhone users from around the globe to download their iPhone apps and thus participate in medical studies. These studies are about asthma, breast cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, Parkinson’s, and more. Nobody is obligated to participate; the goal is to transform the iPhone into a tool for medical research.
CareKit, a separate open-source software platform and the hub of your personal health, with specific doctor-patient apps, is "a framework to build apps that empower people to take an active role in their care". The first app is for Parkinson's Disease sufferers, with other apps due to follow. It will be available in April.
What is ResearchKit?
ResearchKit gives developers the ability to make new iPhone apps that can not only gather health-related but also access data from the Apple Health app - and all of that collected data will help doctors and scientists study diseases and other medical issues. ResearchKit chiefly makes it easier for researchers to recruit volunteer participants for large-scale studies (i.e., not limited to small demographics, regions, populations, etc).
How does ResearchKit work?
As we mentioned above, you won't ever have to come face-to-face with ResearchKit. It's for app developers. You'll only use the new iPhone apps that will launch as a result of Apple making ResearchKit available to developers.
Here's an example of how a ResearchKit-based app works: Download the new Asthma Health app from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and LifeMap Solutions. Once you get the app and then open it, you will need to grant permission for the app to access data from the Health app on your iPhone. It'll look at data like weight, blood pressure, glucose levels, and asthma inhaler use, which are measured by third-party devices and apps.
The Health app first launched alongside HealthKit software framework in 2014. The framework provides apps developers with the ability to develop health and fitness apps that can communicate with each other, while Apple's Health app displays all your health and fitness data collected by those apps in an easy-to-read dashboard. You can also use the Health app to designate which apps can share your data, among other things.
ResearchKit expands upon the Health app and HealthKit. It accesses sensors in the iPhone, including the accelerometer, microphone, gyroscope, and GPS sensors, in order to gain insight into your gait, motor impairment, fitness, speech, memory, and more. None of this information will be collected by ResearchKit-based apps unless you download the apps, then willingly participate in their studies, and decide to share your data.
The new Asthma Health app, for instance, is designed to "facilitate asthma patient education and self-monitoring, promote positive behavioral changes, and reinforce adherence to treatment plans according to current asthma guidelines." It is basically a study app that tracks symptom patterns and potential triggers for exacerbations in volunteer participates so that researchers can learn new ways to treat asthma.
What are some of the first ResearchKit-based apps?
Apart from the Asthma Health app, Apple has highlighted a few of the first apps based on its new ResearchKit framework. The Share the Journey app, for instance, which the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute developed with Penn Medicine, Sage Bionetworks, and UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, is a study that aims to understand why some breast cancer survivors recover faster than others, among other things.
Another app is called MyHeart Counts by Stanford Medicine. It measures heart activity to help researchers accurately evaluate how a participant’s activity and lifestyle relate to cardiovascular health. And then there's the GlucoSuccess app by Massachusetts General Hospital. It attempts to understand how various aspects of a person’s life - such as their diet, physical activity, and medications - affect blood glucose levels.
Apple has also showcased the Parkinson mPower app by Sage Bionetworks and the University of Rochester. It helps people living with Parkinson’s track their symptoms by recording activities through things like a memory game, finger tapping, speaking, and walking. The data collected will help fuel Parkinson’s research at a scale never before possible.
What is CareKit?
CareKit is separate to ResearchKit, designed to help people actively manage their own medical conditions and share information with their doctors and medical practitioners if they wish. Just like with ResearchKit this will happen in the form of apps created by CareKit developers.
At launch in April there will be a Parkinson's Disease app to help track the effectiveness of medicines being taken, and a post-surgery app by the Texas Medical Centre to ensure best possible recovery after being discharged.
CareKit will be released as an open-source framework from April 2016, allowing developers to continue building on the first four modules designed by Apple: Care Card, for tracking care plans and action items, such as taking medication; Symptom and Measurement Tracker, for users to record how they're feeling; Insight Dashboard, to map symptoms against the action items in Care Card; and Connect, for sharing information with doctors, medical practitioners, or even family members.
Apple's Chief Operating Officer, Jeff Williams, said during the Loop You In event held in Cupertino that privacy was of the utmost importance. "Nothing is more sensitive than health data" - with the promise that CareKit allows you to share health data with who you want and how.
There are seven highlighted initial partners on board - Sage Bionetworks, University of Rochester, The Texas Medical Center, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, One Drop, Start by Iodine, and Glow Inc. - to accompany the six major institutions: University of Rochester Medical Center, UCSF, Johns Hopkins Medicine, PDCNY (Parkinson's Disease Care, New York), Stanford Medicine, and Emory Healthcare.
Are ResearchKit- and CareKit apps US-only or worldwide?
ResearchKit-based apps were initially only be available on the US App Store (at appstore.com/researchkit). Since then Apple's ResearchKit apps have been made available elsewhere: in the UK or Hong Kong you can now access the MyHeart Counts app, for example. It is the first ResearchKit app to get an international release - prior to August 2015, the ResearchKit software platform could only be used in the US.
CareKit will be US-only at launch, with other countries expected to follow later.
Which devices support ResearchKit- and CareKit-based apps?
The following Apple devices support ResearchKit- and CareKit-based apps: iPhone 5, iPhone 5S, iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus, iPhone 6S, iPhone 6S Plus, iPhone SE and the latest iPod touch.