Insiders detail beginnings of Apple's ResearchKit health data framework

in iPhone edited April 2015
After a surprise debut earlier in March, Apple's open source ResearchKit framework is being hailed by some as the future of distributed medical research. Dr. Stephen Friend, who worked on the project and now serves as a medical technology advisor at Apple, paints a picture of the tool's early days.

In an interview with Fusion, Friend said he first caught wind of what would ultimately become ResearchKit in September 2013, when he gave a talk at Stanford's MedX conference touting the benefits of open source health data.

Friend is well versed in medical research technology, having worked for pharmaceuticals giant Merck before cofounding Seattle-Based nonprofit biomedical organization Sage Bionetworks. He believes that the right mix of cloud computing and open health data collection would put a wealth of information at researchers' fingertips, profoundly affecting the field.

After the presentation, Friend was approached by Michael O'Reilly, another medical expert who was reportedly hired by Apple between late 2013 and early 2014. Prior to Apple, O'Reilly Was chief medical officer and executive vice president of medical affairs at pulse oximeter firm Masimo Corporation prior to Apple
After Friend's talk, O'Reilly approached the doctor, and, in typical tight-lipped Apple fashion, said: "I can't tell you where I work, and I can't tell you what I do, but I need to talk to you," Friend recalls. Friend was intrigued, and agreed to meet for coffee.
Friend declined to comment on whether his idea of collecting volunteer health data on a massive scale was the basis of ResearchKit, or if Apple had already formulated a similar plan before he joined the initiative. He did admit to making frequent trips to Cupertino and other cities to work on the ambitious program.

As for why Friend chose to help Apple's cause instead of competitors, he said it came down to patient privacy. Other tech companies "make their power by selling data...They get people information about other people," Friend said. "Apple has said, 'We will not look at this data.' Could you imagine Google saying that?"

So far, ResearchKit has seen a good bit of success. For example, a joint Stanford University and University of Oxford cardiovascular study attracted more than 10,000 participants in about one day, a feat that would have taken 50 medical centers an entire year to reproduce.

Euan Ashley, a Stanford researcher who helped create the myHeart app that goes along with the study, told Fusion that he has been working with Apple on the project for more than a year.

Alongside the heart study, there are currently four other active programs with apps in the iOS App Store, including an asthma self-management program from Mount Sinai, Weill Cornell Medical College, and LifeMap; a Parkinson's study from the University of Rochester and Friend's Sage Bionetworks; a diabetes analysis tool from Massachusetts General Hospital; and a breast cancer study from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, Penn Medicine, and Sage Bionetworks.

In creating the ResearchKit framework, Apple has acted as a facilitator, leaving app development up to each research team, Ashley said.

The viability of data coming from ResearchKit has yet to be vetted, but some industry insiders feel Apple's platform is a model against which future mass-distributed open source medical research will be measured.


  • Reply 1 of 13
    solipsismysolipsismy Posts: 5,099member
    I thought 2014's ?Pay would be hard to top as the single most important service Apple brought to customers, but 2015's ResearchKit could very well trump that if it leads to healthier lives.
  • Reply 2 of 13
    slurpyslurpy Posts: 5,375member
    Research Kit is fucking huge, and it's clear that most people don't realize or understand the depth of it's potential. As time goes on, and it integrates more fully with Apple Watch, which will get even more health sensors, it will become even more useful and profound.
  • Reply 3 of 13
    I would love to read an article about how a person interacts with a research app... both as a health data reporter, and then as a receiver of the data.
  • Reply 4 of 13
    What are the implications of it being open source?
    - Ability for non-Apple employees to extend the APIs?
    - Ability to use it on non-Apple platforms?
    - others...?
  • Reply 5 of 13
    Apple hirining people with rhyming medical researchers. The way of the future.
  • Reply 6 of 13
    boredumbboredumb Posts: 1,418member

    I think it would be good if the initiative were presented to private physicians to channel their patients

    with specific issues into the appropriate data pools.  

    It would make the sampling even more broadly representative and effectively targeted

    while not presenting any privacy problems...


    Or perhaps they will be doing this, although I didn't get that impression from the recent 

    Apple presentation, where it seemed more like, "Hey, you're sick, you know what you've got,

    you'll probably find a link there on your phone, huh?"

    Involving private physicians would seem more proactive - I hope they'll be doing that too.

  • Reply 7 of 13
    By far, from the research perspective, this is big. The limiting factor is sensors and that is even bigger. Much of what is known about what is normal and what is abnormal is based upon sampling of college students as research subjects and self-reporting.

    It would be a boon to get timely, contemporaneous and objective data on a mass scale.
  • Reply 8 of 13
    paxmanpaxman Posts: 4,727member
    Agree with all above on this - Research Kit looks like it will be very significant and may indeed prove to radically change how much research is done. It's one of those face-plant moments when the instant you hear about it it seems so obvious. I look forward to earning more about specific research project implementation and results.
  • Reply 9 of 13

    This is super huge!  I was involved in a project that over the course of 10 years, evolved. from CD-ROM then then a website, and at most 200 subjects at a time.  It required people recalling what they have eaten in the past week in such details as toppings, portion sizes, and even supplements, but getting people to participate and share the data with people just so hard.


    If I were still involved, I would rewrite the entire program using the ResearchKit in 3 month.

  • Reply 10 of 13
    rob53rob53 Posts: 3,190member

    This is the first time I've read about any new product Apple has released where nobody involved in the development of the product has spilled the beans. It gives me hope that there still are people in this country/world who can keep their mouths shut when told to do so.


    I also really like the idea of ResearchKit and hope it doesn't get sidetracked by some Apple-hating government official who will demand access to the data.

  • Reply 11 of 13
    razorpitrazorpit Posts: 1,796member

    Originally Posted by SolipsismY View Post

    I thought 2014's ?Pay would be hard to top as the single most important service Apple brought to customers, but 2015's ResearchKit could very well trump that if it leads to healthier lives.

    I agree 100%.  My only hope is that this project doesn't fall in to the bottomless pit of forgotteness with other outstanding ideas such as iBooks Author.  I had a lot of hope with that project and it pretty much fell off the face of the earth.

  • Reply 12 of 13
    rob53rob53 Posts: 3,190member

    Originally Posted by razorpit View Post


    I agree 100%.  My only hope is that this project doesn't fall in to the bottomless pit of forgotteness with other outstanding ideas such as iBooks Author.  I had a lot of hope with that project and it pretty much fell off the face of the earth.

    iBooks Author probably was put on the back burner after the (illegal) court ruling on the bookstore. Once judges who aren't Apple-haters get their say, I could see Apple putting more time to resurrect the whole eBooks market. Of course, the fiasco in LA didn't help things reducing the likelihood that authors will write eBooks for the education market.

  • Reply 13 of 13

    I remember giving my daughter (Med. school) the first iphone when it came out and showing the App that had all the medications on it. Photos, details, etc. And she was so impressed by it. Seems so rudimentary now compared to HealthKit. Go Apple! 


    P.S. I think I have the timing right... the app came out with the iPhone or maybe a little later. Oh well. :)

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