Apple's ResearchKit
Since Apple's ResearchKit was unveiled last week, tens of thousands have signed up for medical research studies via their iPhones. Above, Apple Senior Vice President of Operations Jeff Williams announces ResearchKit on stage at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts March 9, 2015 in San Francisco, California. Stephen Lam/Getty Images

For medical researchers, the tens of thousands of people who recently signed up to participate in studies on asthma, Parkinson’s disease, and other medical conditions by using Apple’s ResearchKit marked a watershed moment in research. Researchers hailed the possibilities brought by the new open-source software framework designed to aid medical studies, all from the screen of the iPhone, with vastly expanded participant pools, more rapid data collection, and better information overall.

Apple, though, is probably holding off celebrating, at least until it determines whether this latest innovation will pay off. Experts describe Apple’s foray into the fields of health care and medical research as a savvy but risky move, one that hinges on the smoothing out of several wrinkles still inherent in ResearchKit’s system. Apple won’t immediately and directly profit from providing free, open-source software, they say, but if it does manage to successfully stake out its turf in the health and medical industry, the payoff in device sales could be huge.

“We saw an opportunity for Apple to have an even greater impact by empowering people to participate in and contribute to medical research,” Jeff Williams, senior vice president of operations for Apple, said in a statement when the company unveiled ResearchKit March 9. But experts suggest that there’s far more at stake in ResearchKit than purely the desire to do good.

As the medical industry moves towards individualized, precision medicine that links to an increased reliance on massive amounts of data, “it’s such a huge market opportunity that any company in the tech space has to take it seriously,” Jakki Mohr, a professor of marketing at the University of Montana’s School of Business Administration, said of recent developments in the medical field. For Apple to attempt to stake out its turf with the ResearchKit is “very bold and very forward looking,” she said.

“Apple wins if they establish a platform that people use that becomes a standard,” Tim Berry, who has worked as a consultant for Apple and is the founder and chairman of Palo Alto Software, added. Even if the software is free, with platforms like ResearchKit, “suddenly there’s an additional incentive for people to be using iPhone iOS products,” he said.

He suggested that the software might be geared towards the newly released Apple Watch, which has smart capabilities and tracks motion, and could, potentially, have more sensors to track metrics like the wearer’s pulse. He said he doubted that Apple would initially offer the software development tools for free only to begin charging for use in the future. Instead, “if it [ResearchKit] enhances the value of carrying iOS in your pocket instead of Chrome or Android—that’s how they monetize,” he said.

But Apple’s move is a risky one, said Mohr, who has co-authored a textbook on marketing high-tech products. “What if it doesn’t pan out the way they want it to?” she asked. “It’s a big gamble.” Apple’s primary source of revenue is in sales of its devices — Macbooks, iPhones, iPads or iPods — she pointed out. By creating software that [for now] can be used only on Apple’s devices, “it’s potentially a way for them to drive additional sales of hardware, such as wearable technology like the watch,” she speculated, either by luring consumers away from Apple’s competitors or by convincing those who are undecided about which new device they should be buy to go with Apple.

In the week since its unveiling, ResearchKit has garnered a significant amount of media hype, both flattering and skeptical. The sheer numbers are awesome for such a short time span: More than 5,500 people have consented to take part in for a study on Parkinson’s disease, more than 2,500 for a study related to asthma, and 22,000 for a study on heart disease. Still, there is some concern about the pool of participants being limited to iPhone users, suggesting that data could be skewed because of it. Once the dust settles, the long-term impact will be easier to glean, but for now, a few things are clear.

One issue with the iPhone data collection methodology is verification, Farzad Mostashari, founder of the health care company Aledade, said. “There’s no way you would find any clinical trial that would take the patient’s word” that he or she has a particular disease, he noted. “They’ve got to be able to integrate real medical information,” he said, and though current regulations and technology do allow for this next step, both were still “clunky.” Integrating medical information would help ResearchKit vastly, he said, but overall the toolkit was “not there yet.”

Perhaps more pressing, however, is the question of what will happen with ResearchKit when the hype dies down. “Is this going to be a viable, long-term approach for clinical trials recruitment?” Mostashari asked, pointing out the studies that have attracted tens of thousands of participants were announced with great fanfare alongside the Apple Watch and ResearchKit.

The next generation of trials is unlikely to land in the same spotlight, he said. If using iPhones to conduct studies is to remain feasible, a key challenge will be finding study participants, especially when they aren’t actively searching for or being bombarded with news about opportunities.

Miles Matthias, 26, a software developer in Denver, signed up for the Parkinson’s study the very same day Apple unveiled ResearchKit, in part because he has family members who have had Parkinson’s and thus wanted to contribute to research. He also signed up for the heart disease study. A regular user of technology to monitor his health habits — he has a FitBit and uses the app MyFitnessPal — Matthias said that signing up for the studies was not difficult.

“It wasn’t as easy as signing up for Twitter,” he admitted. “That’s a much easier workflow.” But given that the medical studies are tied to health care and privacy issues, he said that it made sense that the researchers took precautions in the sign-up process.

Matthias said he would have participated in medical studies prior to the ones he just joined, but until now, “I’d never known of any studies that I could participate in,” he said. Moving forward, he said he might hear about studies socially, or perhaps receive emails from researchers. Most likely, though, “I would probably find out about a new [study] through the app store,” he said.

In the future, when opportunities to participate in medical research aren’t announced in conjunction with Apple’s latest device or software platforms, recruitment will be an obstacle for researchers, predicted Mostashari, a former National Coordinator for Health Information Technology. “The app store is really, really crowded,” he said. “How are people going to find these trials? He was impressed by the droves who had signed up for the studies unveiled last week, he said, but “what about the next generation of these?” In the long run, if Apple's venture into the health and medical fields is to pay off, that's at least one problem the company will have to solve.