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An App For That: iPhones As Medical Research Tools

WBUR's Martha Bebinger reports that two Boston hospitals are among the first users of new Apple software that turns iPhones into tools for medical research:

Massachusetts General Hospital helped develop the tool (called ResearchKit) and is using it to study diabetes. Patients download an app that tracks the impact of diet, movement and medication on blood glucose levels.

Dr. Stanley Shaw, at MGH, says the app helps patients monitor their health while contributing to research.

"It changes from a one-sided exchange to a new culture where they are also benefiting from the study data that they're personally contributing," he says.

Shaw says stored data is not linked to a patient's ID or Apple accounts.

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute has an app that tracks recovery rates and symptoms for breast cancer survivors. Dr. Ann Partridge is using the Apple software in an app that tracks fatigue, mood changes and sleep patterns among breast cancer survivors.

"Patients really control both what they tell us and we can measure what they're doing through the application and their Smart phones," Dr. Partridge, of Dana-Farber, says.

Marketplace reporter Adam Allington quotes Jeff Williams, a senior vice president of operations at Apple, saying that the key benefit of the ResearchKit is to help doctors and researchers increase the sample size in clinical studies:

"They often have to pay people to participate, which by the way doesn't give you the best cross section of the population. But, the bigger issue is small sample sizes, sometimes 50-100 people," says Williams.

Using smartphones could allow researchers to gather data on people where they live, even all the way into their pockets, which sounds kind of creepy when it comes from NSA, but in the context of a voluntary option for medical research it, could significantly help our understanding of disease.

“It’s been really hard to untangle complex diseases like cancer or Parkinson’s disease or cancer, when you only see someone three times a year for 15 minutes,” says John Wilbanks, of Sage Bionetworks.

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