Mobile Developers Get to Play Doctor

For developers still dreaming of producing the next Angry Birds gaming craze or supplanting WhatsApp as the world’s greatest connector, Apple has quietly provided a revolutionary new opportunity.

Developers can actually help make the world healthier—and they don’t even need to get a medical degree to do it.

(Apple) Pie in the Sky

By making Research Kit—an application construction package released on March 9—open source, developers have free access to a very captive (and very enthusiastic) niche market: medical researchers.

Research Kit from Apple

The idea behind Apple’s move is to make its new Apple Watches work with their iPhones in exciting new ways: measuring a wearer’s heart rate, for example, or helping users better monitor their physical activity through GPS. Even President Obama has expressed excitement at making personal use of this health data.

But for medical researchers, doctors, and drug-makers, this information has the potential to unlock much more than running a faster mile.

Just the Facts (or Data)

The Kit release comes right at the peak of America’s shift to Electronic Health Records, which digitize individual patient information for easier sharing and use by healthcare workers. There is hope that EHR platforms will help organize, store, and enable retrieval of such data efficiently. But digitizing health data doesn’t automatically change how doctors obtain that data in the first place—traditionally, by asking patients, one at a time, and recording their responses.

Electronic Health Records

Wearable health devices automate the data-gathering. Fashionable tech—from pedometers to blood pressure monitors—makes measuring and reading biometrics a simple, passive activity. That is, if they are accompanied by apps that automatically interface with devices (or directly with users) to record the information. That is where developers come in.

Dev Right In

Now, developers can bridge the gap between device users, and the medical professionals who need device data to better understand how individuals (or populations, for that matter) actually function. Fortunately, developers can focus here on design and interface. It is up to researchers to manage the collected data, and users to pay for the smart devices and wearables that take the measurements.

This is no small challenge. Research Kit works only on iOS, for one thing, so porting functional apps over to Android is an obvious next step in putting the data to work. With iOS and Android systems quickly taking over the mobile application market, researchers are definitely going to need users of both to access their apps.

Electronic Health Records

Then of course, there is the matter of getting users to participate. Making apps quietly passive, or entertainingly interactive, will give them a better shot at gaining some popularity among users—and reward designers for their creativity.

What’s My Motivation?

Researchers are hoping users of smart phones and related health devices will volunteer data for the sake of science. Innovative developers can supplement this by making apps people want to use for any number of other reasons: entertainment, organization, socializing—there is no reason to limit their potential.

At its best, Research Kit is a springboard for designers to elevate themselves and their work. The time frame of any given study may be limited, but a well-constructed app can enjoy a much longer life with a little help from motivated techies. As always, designing apps for health research is matter of combining form and function with special attention given to users. After all, the researchers only need the raw data; users need to enjoy providing it through the apps.

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