Apple’s ubiquitous iPhone has been used for all sorts of silliness, from distracting games to idle chat. But now it’s got a chance to tackle a far weightier task, such as battling Parkinson’s and improving cardiovascular health.
Building on a HealthKit app that debuted with iPhone 6, Apple announced Monday that it had worked with a range of doctors, hospitals and developers to create five new opt-in apps that its smartphone users can use to share personal health data to improve medical research.
Dubbed Research Kit, the apps target Parkinson’s, breast cancer, diabetes, asthma and cardiovascular diseases. The apps are available for download now.
“With hundreds of millions of iPhones in use around the world, we saw an opportunity for Apple to have an even greater impact by empowering people to participate in and contribute to medical research,” said Jeff Williams, senior vice president of operations, told the crowd.
Given that Apple has some 700 million iPhones in circulation, the potential pool for scientists in search of massive real-time data is impressive. A video that Apple screened during its presentation here — which was otherwise focused entirely on the debut of Apple Watch — featured a university researcher noting that after sending out tens of thousands of letters soliciting participants for a recent breast cancer survivor study, only 300 or so women replied.
Of course with any data-sharing proposition comes the obvious question of the security of such personal data. Williams said emphatically that “Apple will not see your data.”
Although Williams didn’t go into a lot of detail on the functionality of each app, he did linger on the one focused on helping both Parkinson’s sufferers as well as the disease’s researchers. It was developed in conjunction with the University of Rochester, Capital Medical University, Xuanwu Hospital and Sage Bionetworks.
After turning on the app, users are asked to cycle through a series of short tests that assess the degree to which the disease has progressed. One test asks the user to tap the screen as fast as they can for 20 seconds, another uses the iPhone’s GPS and motion sensor to assess gait and balance.
While this information helps researchers, it also helps patients, Williams said, adding that “it’s known that exercise can significantly slow or halt the acceleration of Parkinson’s, and with this app you can easily track your exercise as compared to the results from those tests.”