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Build it (an easy way to join research studies) and the volunteers will come


Just nine days after the launch of Stanford Medicine’s MyHeart Counts iPhone app, 27,836 people have consented to participate in this research study on cardiovascular health.

“To recruit that many patients into a traditional clinical trial would take years and hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said Michael McConnell, MD, professor of cardiovascular medicine and principal investigator for the MyHeart Counts study.

MyHeart Counts was built with Apple’s new ResearchKit, a software development framework that can be used to create apps that turn an iPhone into a research and data collection tool. Leveraging a smartphone’s built-in accelerometers, gyroscopes, camera and GPS sensors, medical researchers can easily and inexpensively collect streams of data on exercise, diet and biometrics. Unlike most traditional clinical trials, which capture only a snapshot of patient data, ResearchKit studies are able to collect data from thousands of participants simultaneously, over long periods of time.

While the potential for this technology to accelerate medical research is tantalizing, the ethical issues of this shift in researcher-volunteer interactions took Stanford researchers and collaborator Sage Bionetworks nine months to work out.

“One of the big challenges in designing this study was to develop an ethical mechanism for informed consent on mobile devices,” David Magnus, PhD, director of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, told me. “It was essential that volunteers understand the nature of the research and what it means for them.”

The concept of informed consent is an important tenet of any research institution’s commitment to respect individuals and to “do no harm.” Without face-to-face meeting between a researcher and volunteer, there could be misunderstandings about risks, benefits and time commitments.

Stanford bioethicists are on the leading edge of addressing the communications challenges of these new frontiers in medical research. Rethinking long, text-based consent forms, they are exploring alternatives, such as audio, video, animation and interactivity.

For example, a team of bioethicists from Stanford and the University of Washington recently released animated videos that explain comparative-effectiveness research within medical practices to potential volunteers. Next, they’ll be developing media-rich tools to explain the risks and benefits of research that uses electronic medical records and stored biological samples.

To solicit ideas on how to best regulate this brave new world of informed consent, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration just posted draft guidance on “Use of Electronic Informed Consent in Clinical Investigations.” Public comments will be accepted through May 7, 2015.

To sign up for the MyHeart Counts study, visit the iTunes store.

Previously: Harnessing mobile health technologies to transform human healthMyHeart Counts app debuts with a splashStanford launches iPhone app to study heart health and Video explains why doctors don’t always know best
Photo by iMore

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