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Wearable Tech

Apple announces ResearchKit, a new service for medical studies

Apple has built a new technology to help researchers collect data from the company's customers.


Apple's expanding its efforts in health technology. James Martin

Apple is striking new partnerships in medical research.

At its "Spring Forward" event Monday, the company said it has built new software called ResearchKit, which will help medical professionals build apps. Apple said it has already worked with groups at Oxford and Stanford, helping them build apps and technologies to assist with various kinds of research.

"One of the biggest challenges researchers have is in recruiting," said Jeff Williams, head of operations at Apple. He said researchers have trouble getting consistent and regular data from participants.

One example Apple discussed was an app to assess if a patient has Parkinson's, listening to them talking, measuring their walking and looking for tremors when they touch the screen.

Other partnerships include technology to assess asthma, breast cancer and other conditions.

Apple promised that all the technology will respect user's privacy. The company said customers can choose which studies to participate in, and that Apple will not look at customer's data. The underlying code will also be available for free to other companies, Apple said.

The move is Apple's latest effort to build health technology into its devices. The iPhone already has a technology called HealthKit, designed to gather information such as steps walked and food eaten, in partnership with various app and sensor companies.

Apple isn't alone. Health has become a big focus area for companies across the tech sector. Several have introduced health-centric gadgets, such as the Samsung Gear Fit and Jawbone Up24 , and countless others are working on smart glucose meters and similar products. Other companies see an opportunity to mine patient data or collect readings on individuals to predict when they'll get sick and to tailor treatment.

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Apple archrival Samsung, for one, has made a big push in health with its mobile devices. Its Galaxy S5 smartphone and Gear Fit incorporate heart rate monitors and health-focused apps. In May, it also unveiled efforts to develop new sensors and a cloud-based platform for collecting health data.

Apple unveiled HealthKit during its Worldwide Developer Conference in June. The software lets consumers track health-related data and serves as a hub for that information. It also includes a corresponding app named Health, which can be used with third-party fitness devices.

At the company's developer conference last year, Craig Federighi, senior vice president of software engineering, said many medical institutions have already signed on as partners, including the Mayo Clinic. Mayo has an integration with HealthKit that goes to work when patients do things like check their blood pressure rating. The software will automatically check to see if the rating is within the set parameters, and notify the hospital if it is not so doctors can check in with their patients more quickly. The hope for Apple is that HealthKit will enable a whole new generation of health apps.

The company went a step further with Apple Watch, positioning the device in part as a health and fitness device. It includes features such as activity trackers and vibrating reminders to stand up if you've been sitting too long. The device's Activity app gives you a view of your daily activity, including how many calories you've burned, how much exercise you've done and how often you've stood up to get a break from sitting. And the Workout app gives more detailed measurements and real-time stats such as time, distance, calories, pace and speed for certain workouts.