Apple’s Research App Will Gather Health Info For Science

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On Thursday, Nov. 14, Apple is launching their new Research app in the U.S., allowing participants to enroll in three different health studies — including one devoted to reproductive health. The studies are called the Apple Women’s Health Study, the Apple Heart and Movement Study, and the Apple Hearing Study. Together, they may represent a new phase for crowd-sourced medical studies.

Health apps are hugely popular, from period trackers like Clue to meditation and mindfulness apps like Headspace, but Apple's new offering takes a different approach. Apple's technology allows your iPhone or Watch to monitor metrics like heart rate, period frequency, or decibel levels nearby, and that data can be fed automatically into a study, should you choose to sign up for one.

The Research app is notable because of the sheer scale of people who might use it — 101.9 million people were estimated to have iPhones in the U.S. in 2018, according to Statista, and data gathered by Strategy Analytics in 2018 found that the Apple Watch is the most popular smartwatch in the world. The Research app is designed for both iPhone and Apple Watches, so the pool of potential users who might submit their data for the study is, well, massive. The Apple Heart and Movement Study requires participants to already own an Apple Watch, as it will track workouts, but the other two studies can be completed with data from just your iPhone. Unlike apps like Health, which comes preloaded on new iPhones, the app will be available to download from the App Store. The app is designed only to share data explicitly approved by the user, and it gives people the lowdown on how their data will be used when they sign up.

Enrolling participants in health studies (and keeping them enrolled) is one of the biggest challenges in science, particularly because it often involves logistical difficulties like checking in in person or filling in a lot of paperwork. By using an app, rather than going to a hospital or doctor's office, more people will be encouraged take part in the studies and fill out regular surveys about their health.

Courtesy of Apple

The app is also groundbreaking in that, when you enter your demographic information, participants are asked whether they identify as intersex, or if their gender identity is different from the one assigned on their birth certificate. This means these studies have the potential to be among the world's biggest studies that explicitly include transgender, intersex, and non-binary participants. People who identify as gender minorities are historically underserved by scientific research, so this is a big deal, particularly in the field of reproductive health.

Once you've entered your details, the app shows you three different studies you can choose to participate in. The Apple Women's Health Study will focus on menstrual cycles and what they might indicate about conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome, menopause, and osteoporosis. The data from the app is being analyzed by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the National Institutes of Health. “Women make up half of the world’s population, yet even today there has been limited investment in studying their unique health needs," Michelle A. Williams, a reproductive epidemiologist and dean of the faculty at the Harvard T.H. Chan School, said in a statement emailed to Bustle. "This study, unprecedented in scope, will greatly advance our understanding of the biological and social determinants of women’s health, and lead to better health outcomes.”

The other two studies will focus on different health conditions. The Apple Heart And Movement Study will study heart health and cardiovascular illness, in collaboration with Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the American Heart Association, while the Apple Hearing Study, in partnership with the University of Michigan, will examine environmental sound exposure, hearing loss, and how sounds might influence your stress levels and heart. All three longitudinal studies are going to be conducted over many years, so we won't see the first conclusions for a while.

Apps have been tapping into their user databases for scientific purposes for a few years now, but this may be the biggest attempt yet to use a health app for research. If it works, it may reshape the way we think about health studies in the future — and give science a lot of important insights to build on.