Apple’s Latest Announcement—What ResearchKit Will Mean for Us

By: Dave Mihalovic, EVP, Experience & Innovation (3/12/2015)

All eyes were on Apple this week, as the company unveiled details around the Apple Watch and other offerings in a much-hyped product event. Apple's announcements were, as expected, exciting and breakthrough on many counts. From a new MacBook that's 13 mm thin to the watch the world has been anticipating for the last six months. At first I was in a state of "ehhh," but after today I found myself in the "ahhh" camp. I mean, who wouldn't want a watch that could feed me Instagram photos, open my garage door from a different country, request an Uber in a tap, or let me take calls like Dick Tracy did? And that's all without the health and fitness capabilities inherent in the device.

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Yes, March 9 marked another day of disruption for Apple, but one of the most significant announcements actually wasn't about a watch or a new laptop; it was about Apple's commitment to improving medicine and championing health. ResearchKit is Apple's solve for medical research and analysis, a sector that hasn't seen significant innovation in decades.

The Promise of Big Health Data

Think of it like this: if Apple Health and HealthKit are designed to realize the concept of the “quantified self” by placing health tracking and analysis in the hands of patients, ResearchKit is the flip side of that coin. It is designed to help doctors and medical practitioners gather data to improve their understanding and ability to manage disease—in a way never before possible.

Before ResearchKit, the ability to recruit patients for research and trials was largely accomplished using manual methods like mailers, localized recruiting, and some online techniques. With nearly one in four Americans carrying iPhones today, the ability for doctors to recruit and activate participants could be exponential.

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The impact this brings to the gathering of real-world patient data is enormous. This data, in the hands of medical researchers and practitioners, will be transformational as we begin to see behavioral relationships across large populations. We can see, for example, what combination of therapies, diet, and activity has the best result in an early stage type 2 diabetes patient, across a broad spectrum of dimensions whether they be cardiac, metabolic, or totally unexpected.

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In one particular example, Apple worked with Mount Sinai, Weill Cornell Medical College, and LifeMap to develop an asthma research app that logs data regarding triggers and symptoms, and maps that to local air quality data. This, in turn, helps patients understand where and when they are at greater risk and what treatments are required to avoid asthmatic events. Health data, in this case from multiple sources, creates a personalized health management experience for asthma patients, which helps them proactively manage their health.

Additional partners at launch include:

Data Security and Privacy Questions

In 2014, there were over 780 data security breaches recorded by the Identity Theft Resources Center, of which nearly half involved medical data. Apple assures us that patients opt into all studies and explicitly share only the data those patients wish to be shared. But the laws and regulations governing the medical community’s privacy policies do not apply to data shared in apps or devices. Instead, this information is available to be sold, shared, and stored according to Apple’s privacy policy.

Device hacking is also a growing concern as health data commands a premium in the hacker community. But if any company is well positioned to protect data and ensure that data isn't shared, it’s Apple.

Historically Apple has skewed towards keeping customer data private, even preventing the use of device ID information and user data to be collected for advertising purposes. And with their experience securing data on devices for Apple Pay, one has to believe they have a leg up on ensuring data is as safe and secure as possible. But risks still exist. The question is, in light of this revolutionary platform, is this a risk patients are willing to take? Which brings me to my next topic, open source.

Open Source and the Real Play for Apple

In an unusual move for Apple, ResearchKit was released as open-source software. This means that communities of researchers and developers can extend the platform, uncover and fix bugs Apple might not have encountered, and create apps for Android devices along with numerous other platforms. This move is significant and ensures that Apple will capture significant share of the market

But, what’s the real advantage? Apple is building a consumer health ecosystem as well as a clinical ecosystem via ResearchKit—and connecting the two with its Health platform and myriad of devices.

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Suddenly, it’s not a far cry for Apple to become the de-facto health data platform in a world where there really hasn’t been one. Medical data portability, PHRs, and EHRs today are segmented, at best, with thousands of players struggling to keep up with meaningful use guidelines. Apple brings to the table a solution that not only ensures data portability for both sides atop devices that both patients and clinicians carry around every day, but this new opportunity allows for a real-time, historically accurate record of patient behaviors. Microsoft HealthVault, GoogleFit, Dossia, and more play in this space but there is no clear winner, and nobody has yet to provide a solution that effectively bridges the patient and physician divide. Keep watching this space as Apple evolves their strategy.

Implications for Us

As marketers, is there a clear and practical benefit coming out of all this? ResearchKit is a clinical platform designed to help doctors and clinicians understand and improve the health of large populations of patients across diseases. There is not a pure marketing opportunity here; this is about revolutionizing medicine and improving the quality of patient health.

But what ResearchKit does give us is an array of data that was never before available. This data can be used to help us understand patient behaviors and needs.

It gives us insight, and insight helps us understand how products should be positioned to best help patients. More importantly, it has the potential to help us, as marketers, facilitate better physician understanding of real-world data in ways that brands have yet to envision. Imagine the day when a sales rep can enter the doctor’s office and speak specifically to that doctor’s experiences, based on data he or she has aggregated with ResearchKit.

Apple has done it again; and this time it will benefit people in ways we never could have guessed when Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007.

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