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The Use of Smartphones for Health Research

Dorsey, E. Ray MD; “Yvonne Chan, Yu-Feng MD, PhD; McConnell, Michael V. MD, MSEE; Shaw, Stanley Y. MD, PhD; Trister, Andrew D. MD, PhD; Friend, Stephen H. MD, PhD

doi: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000001205

Because of their growing popularity and functionality, smartphones are increasingly valuable potential tools for health and medical research. Using ResearchKit, Apple’s open-source platform to build applications (“apps”) for smartphone research, collaborators have developed apps for researching asthma, breast cancer, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and Parkinson disease. These research apps enhance widespread participation by removing geographical barriers to participation, provide novel ways to motivate healthy behaviors, facilitate high-frequency assessments, and enable more objective data collection. Although the studies have great potential, they also have notable limitations. These include selection bias, identity uncertainty, design limitations, retention, and privacy. As smartphone technology becomes increasingly available, researchers must recognize these factors to ensure that medical research is conducted appropriately. Despite these limitations, the future of smartphones in health research is bright. Their convenience grants unprecedented geographic freedom to researchers and participants alike and transforms the way clinical research can be conducted.

E.R. Dorsey is professor, Department of Neurology, and director, Center for Human Experimental Technologies (CHET), University of Rochester Medical Center, Rochester, New York.

Y.F. Chan is assistant professor, Department of Genetics and Genomic Sciences and Department of Emergency Medicine, and director of digital health, Icahn Institute for Genomics and Multiscale Biology, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, New York.

M.V. McConnell is professor, Department of Medicine, and director of cardiovascular health innovation, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, California.

S.Y. Shaw is assistant professor, Department of Medicine, and cofounder and codirector, Center for Assessment Technology and Continuous Health (CATCH), Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts.

A.D. Trister is senior physician, Sage Bionetworks, Seattle, Washington.

S.H. Friend is president, cofounder, and director, Sage Bionetworks, Seattle, Washington.

Funding/Support: Apple provided in-kind technical support for the development of each of the research apps. The preparation of this report was supported in part by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (P20 NS092529).

Other disclosures: S.H. Friend was previously employed by Apple.

Ethical approval: The institutional review boards at each of the organizations leading the development of an app (see Table 1) reviewed and approved the smartphone research studies described in this article. Western Institutional Review Board reviewed and approved the smartphone research studies at Sage Bionetworks.

Correspondence should be addressed to E. Ray Dorsey, University of Rochester Medical Center, 265 Crittenden Blvd., CU 420694, Rochester, NY 14642; telephone: (585) 275-0663; e-mail:

© 2017 by the Association of American Medical Colleges