Apple revolutionizes medical research

By Rebekah Devorak | Opinions Editor 

In an era when the iPhone is commonly used for boosting confidence and perfecting other’s perceptions of ourselves through carefully chosen Instagram themes, Apple is instead choosing to use arguably its most popular invention to better the world.

With the recent expansion of ResearchKit, Apple once again innovates and revolutionizes the medical research field. Apple developed the iOS-based platform in early March originally to study five diseases and conditions: Parkinson’s disease, breast cancer, diabetes, asthma and heart disease. With the latest update to the program, the iPhone can now be used to monitor autism, epilepsy and melanoma.

Users can choose to participate in the clinical trials by downloading the app specific to their ailment. According to Fortune, these apps were created entirely by university medical programs and hospitals around the country. Any worries about privacy are thoroughly addressed; before they begin using the app, users are able to dictate how they wish to share information through an interactive consent procedure.

The apps themselves are also interactive, with numerous tasks for each user to complete. For example, the breast cancer app, Share the Journey, tracks sleep and mood changes through the iPhone’s sensors and user-submitted surveys. The gathered information allows researchers to understand practically anything about the patient.

This is going to be especially significant when studying autism, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate affects one in 68 children.

According to the National Institute for Mental Health, autism is characterized by constant social communication and interaction deficits along with restrictive patterns of behavior or interests. These symptoms often present themselves before the age of two.

However, because the spectrum of impairment is so wide, with some children being mildly affected and others severely disabled, it can be difficult for doctors to pin down a treatment. The Autism Society states that treatments are as diverse as the patients, with no one treatment available to aid every person diagnosed.

Apple ResearchKit is hoping to change that. With the app Autism & Beyond developed by Duke University, researchers use approved stimuli to gauge a child’s reaction to them. That reaction can then be used to link possible signs of autism. The ultimate goal is to accumulate thousands of these reactions for the creation of a database to assist with recognizing the disorder.

Apple picked a solid eight diseases and disorders to begin with, but they shouldn’t stop there. It would be incredible if the company chose to study depression next, which affects one in 10 people according to the CDC and is thought to be one of the leading causes of suicide. If researchers were able to compile a database of depression symptoms and experiences similar to what they are doing with autism, it could help doctors diagnose more people and leave less of them untreated.

But the best thing about ResearchKit might not be its ability to garner useful information. The fact that an iPhone and corresponding apps can be used anywhere with access to Wi-Fi or a cellular signal means that people in underdeveloped places will be able to have their voices heard. It is unprecedented access for both researchers, who before were confined to those within a feasible distance of research facilities, and patients.

While the apps are only available in certain countries – Autism & Beyond launched in the United States and South Africa – Apple should continue expanding ResearchKit until it reaches every corner of the world. This program has the definite potential to pioneer research in areas without much, or any, access to medical resources. While technology might have to catch up first in places like sub-Saharan Africa, the Siberian tundra or even some spots of rural America, ResearchKit has the ability to amp up the medical field in underserved nations.

And that is something that will better everyone.