Is This the Age of Crowdsourcing Medical Research?

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Up close view of an iphoneVisits to the doctor seldom tell the complete story. People living with chronic conditions tend to have good days and bad days, and occasional office visits rarely capture these vicissitudes. In March, Apple unveiled a tool called ResearchKit that could remedy this impediment to collecting accurate health data. ResearchKit is an open-source software that runs on the iPhone and can receive data from the newly released Apple Watch. With ResearchKit, scientists can develop apps that allow iPhone and Apple Watch users to join medical research studies directly.

ResearchKit heralds a new age in health research — one powered by crowdsourcing — that could revolutionize medicine. Discover what wearables and other crowdsourcing tools might mean for the future of medical research and public health.

Crowdsourcing: A Godsend to Health Researchers

Why all the fuss about crowdsourcing in the medical community? The answer is simple: quantity, economy, and accessibility. Portable devices like smartphones and wearable technology give medical researchers access to massive populations. For instance, Apple alone has hundreds of millions of customers. Leveraging smart devices and their popularity to the benefit of health informatics and health information management means unprecedented amounts of data, which also improves the accuracy of the conclusions extracted from that data.

ResearchKit apps allow Apple users to consent to take part in medical research studies for free. The ability to gather the medical information from millions of people without any significant expenses makes crowdsourcing an appealingly economical alternative to traditional research methods.

Finally, app-based research opens up voluminous amounts of health data to researchers around the world. Instead of research taking place in scattered, disconnected institutions, data gathered from apps are potentially available to any research operation at any time. Crowdsourced research accessibility is unparalleled; researchers can share findings and goals in real time like never before.

Early Successes of Crowdsourced Research

Although Apple’s entrance into crowdsourced medical research is recent, the concept is far from novel. In fact, app-based, crowdsourced research has already experienced success with studies on breast cancer, heart disease, and Parkinson’s disease. For example, the mPower app has demonstrated its ability to measure the day-to-day symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. The mPower app uses iOS devices to give Parkinson’s disease patients tests like tapping rhythmically a specific number of times, walking a straight line, and saying “ahhh” to pick up vocal changes.

Growth Potential for Wearables and Medical Research

With the unveiling of the Apple Watch, wearable smart technology stands at the edge of widespread adoption. This technology holds even more promise for crowdsourced research, as wearable technology can conceivably monitor a user 24 hours a day. The possibilities for wearables have the medical community abuzz about the cure-finding potential. For instance, The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research equipped Parkinson’s disease sufferers with smartwatches in August 2014 with the hope of a major research discovery.

Smartphones and perhaps eventually smartwatches could give medical researchers the variety and quantity of data they need to make life-saving discoveries. These exciting medical applications take wearable tech from a newfangled novelty to a possible public health messiah.

Image via Flickr by Janitors