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Apple's ResearchKit: Gamechanger for digital health care?

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Just as the launch of Apple's iPod and iTunes proved to be the tipping point in digital music, some are speculating that Apple's new platform for medical researchers and its Apple Watch,could do the same for digital, data-driven health care.

"They've got the size, the influence, and they're integrating across consumer digital health to medicine," said Paul Sonnier, a digital health advocate and consultant. "It's all about ecosystem building and bringing in the right partners."

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Apple announced Monday a new open-source platform called ResearchKit to help health researchers enlist and monitor research subjects through Apple devices.

"This is a new era," said Yvonne Chan, director of personalized medicine and digital health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. "This is really, truly revolutionizing the way clinical research could be done in the future."

Mount Sinai Hospital is one of five medical facilities that will conduct clinical trials using ResearchKit.

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Mount Sinai researchers plan to use their Asthma Mobile Health study app to recruit a large number of asthma patients, who will then use the app to track their day-to-day symptoms and habits. The hope is that the real-time tracking will help the researchers and the patients understand what triggers attacks, and document what practices can maintain better health.

Apple Senior Vice President of Operations Jeff Williams announces ResearchKit on March 9, 2015 in San Francisco.
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"We can now access potential participants in all corners of the globe, as long as they have an iPhone and an Internet connection," she explained, following Apple's event Monday in San Francisco where ResearchKit was unveiled. "It's potentially the largest real-world epidemiological asthma study ever."

Health researchers are also curious to see how the Apple Watch can be used to help patients and doctors monitor health conditions. Already, some of the biggest names in health care have signed on to test it.

"Health care and the cost of treating preventable conditions is growing at an untenable rate. And this is going to be a powerful tool, I believe, to help address that," said Brian Carter, senior director of personal health at Cerner, one of the nation's leading electronic health record providers.

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Cerner is launching a pilot with some of its clients when the Apple Watch becomes available this spring to integrate data from the watch into health records and help providers monitor those patients in real time. The key is breaking out the information so that it's actionable.

"The thing that a lot of the care community is concerned about is … 'What am I going to do with all of this data that's coming at me?'" said Carter. "What's exciting for us is to show the applicability across … the different modes of engagement that health-care providers would use."

It's anyone's guess how popular the ResearchKit apps or the Apple Watch will prove to be. There are already plenty of competitors with various forms of health trackers, and starting at $349, the Apple Watch may be a pricey add-on to some consumers' phones.

But as it did with music and smartphones, Apple's big push into digital health care will likely serve as a rising tide that lifts many boats, said Sonnier.

"Just the massive awareness this brings to the ability of digital tools to foster better health," he said. "It's profound."