Let’s write Apps with Apple ResearchKit!

Let’s write Apps with Apple ResearchKit!

Yes, the much-awaited Apple ResearchKit is now live!

Now, how do we use it?

Let’s get back to the main picture!


The Apple ResearchKit is an open source software framework (which means that the code used to write the software is visible by the public and anyone can use it!)[1], which is specially designed for medical and health research using the iPhone’s technically-advanced features, such as its accelerometer, microphone, gyroscope sensors and global positioning system (GPS), which are already built into the iPhone.

From a healthcare perspective, these sensors do the following (see Table 1):

iPhone sensorsDescription
AccelerometerThe accelerometer can compare the gait and balance of someone’s walk against a healthy person’s speed and posture
MicrophoneNotice minute fluctuations in someone’s voice that may indicate Parkinson’s or another health problem-see the Parkinson’s mPower App
Touch sensor screenThe touch screen can feel people tapping in rhythm to detect inconsistencies that may signal a disease
GyroscopeMeasures orientation from a fitness and well being perspective but can be extended for other health analysis
Global Position Systems Provides location and time information in all weather conditions. E.g.: for Asthma patients, this is useful to see how the weather will affect their breathing. See the Asthma Health App

Table 1: iPhone sensors

The data generated from these sensors (which are already built on the iPhone) will send it to the app that is developed via the development platform i.e. the ResearchKit. Using separate (smart) devices (made by other companies), the iPhone can also gather information such as glucose levels and asthma inhaler use.


There are 3 modules in the Apple ResearchKit framework- surveys, informed consent, and active tasks. These are customizable modules to address the most common elements across the various types of a clinical studies or a clinical trial (see Figure 1). One can use these modules as they are (to develop a basic mHealth app) or build upon them for extended functionality. In addition, you can choose to create completely new modules to fit your clinical study. The three modules mentioned here are the ones that come with Apple ResearchKit but it is extendable and customisable[2]!



Figure 1: Framework of the Apple ResearchKit

ResearchKit is a Software Development Kit (SDK) and once you have finalized your study, you would identify app developers that can help you build your research app. In which case, FirstApp can provide that for you. You need to work with a trusted and credible team who has extensive experience in developing apps specifically for medical research and healthcare or clinical trials, who can consult you on each technical bit that you would need and what scientific data that can and needs to be captured.

Apps already developed via the Apple ResearchKit

There are currently 5 apps that have been written based on the ResearchKit’s framework. These apps made with the ResearchKit target’s Parkinson’s, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, asthma and breast cancer. You can view these apps here[3]:

Table 2 summaries the apps that has been developed:

Therapy AreaApp description
Parkinson’sParkinson mPower mobile Parkinson’s Disease by Sage Bionetworks and the University of Rochester
Breast CancerShare the Journey by by the Dan-Farber Cancer Institute, Penn Medicine, Sage Bionetworks and UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center
DiabetesGlucoSuccess by by Massachusetts General Hospital
AsthmaAsthma Health by Mount Sinai and LifeMap Solutions
Heart diseaseMyHeart Counts app by Stanford University

Table 2: Apps already developed with the ResearchKit

Using mobile devices to capture data

The idea is that scientists, clinicians or research would be able to gather activity and biometric data on people who opted in to be part of research studies via a mobile platform (instead of the traditional paper-based method). The clinician can design something far more complex than a just a specific duration patient diary study. The clinician can use sensors to track the patient’s movement over the course of the study, trigger questions to check the patient’s well-being via push notifications, and include an ongoing intervention sheet for patient-reported outcomes i.e. an eDiary, questionnaires and surveys. This then allows the researcher/clinician to receive updates and track the patient on real time. This allows them to understand the entire picture and in turn get real evidence, which theoretically turns into accurate data.

From the MCT Congress 2015, it was found that 50% of clinical studies still use paper based, which does not seem ideal anymore in this fast-paced technology age. Paper-based data collection tends to have more errors as well. Collecting data electronically or via a mobile device (with Apps) allow real time insights, which can significantly reduce recall bias. It also allows the participant to go about their daily tasks easier, with less reliance on the schedule of the researcher. A user-friendly interface makes answering questions prompted faster and easier than traditional methods. It is worth noting that this technology is not limited only to smartphones but also to iPads and other wireless devices.

Is there an Android ResearchKit?

There is no “Android version” of this. According to IDT[4], 14.8% of global smartphone users currently run iOS, which is the only operating system on which ResearchKit apps can be built. About 81.5% of global smartphone users run on Android. It appears that the majority of patients/subjects may be excluded from ResearchKit-based trials. However, this will not be an issue because clinical research apps can be built regardless if there was a ResearchKit or not. Health apps can be built on an Android platform for a medical study or clinical trial. We will talk more on interoperability of each platform in a future blog.

Apps development

Companies may want their connected applications to run on desktops, tablets and on both iOS and Android phones. Native, hybrid and HTML 5 are 3 different development technologies for designing and developing these connected applications. The choice of which technology to use will depend on what type of application you are building, who are your most valuable users and what is the development cost and time that is both acceptable both short and long term. This topic will be covered in future blogs! So stay tuned!


[1] View the open source website to learn best practices for working with ResearchKit or download the ResearchKit code here: GitHub site. Links provided by Apple ©.

[2] Talk to a developer team on how you’d like your app to be. FirstApp, an mHealth and clinical trial/medical research specialist is able to consult you on this.

[3] Fortune magazine: Laura Lorenzetti. (2015). Here are the 5 Apple ResearchKit apps you can start using now. Available: http://fortune.com/2015/03/13/apple-researchkit-apps-available/. Last accessed 16th April 2015

[4] IDC Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker, February 24, 2015

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