Apple and Google's different, but complementary, approaches to medical research

By Jonah Comstock

JONAH_COMSTOCK_HEADSHOTWhen Apple made its ResearchKit announcement yesterday, my mind immediately went to the Google Baseline Study, a massive research project conducted by Google, using mobile health tools to create unprecedented amounts of data about a large sample of healthy people.

Not that the two initiatives are overly similar, but both their differences and the similarities that do exist are interesting. In many ways, the headline is just this: Apple and Google, two of the biggest consumer technology companies at the forefront of mobile technology, have both set their sights on tackling the world of medical research and clinical trials which, Apple rightly points out, is currently pretty outdated in its practices.

"Up until now if someone wanted to do a research study they might put a bunch of flyers up and hope someone comes along and tears off the phone number," Mike O'Reilly, Apple's Vice President of Medical Technology, said in a video at shown at Apple's event. "Methods for conducting medical research haven't really changed in decades."

This isn't news to anyone working in healthcare innovation, where the promise of innovating clinical trials has been hanging in the air for years. But right alongside it has always been the question: "What will it take for mobile-enabled trials to really take off?".

Google and Apple are each approaching the problem of medical research more or less the way you would expect them to: Google is launching a single, large and expensive "moonshot" research project, while Apple is creating a framework that could potentially facilitate any research project, and improve its efficiency and the quality of its data.

Both projects are rooted in one of the biggest promises of mobile health: that it's now possible to collect data on individuals continuously, creating a much more complex and complete picture than if health data is only collected at regular intervals -- like office visits. And the two projects have the potential to complement each other: Part of the value of Google's baseline data will be in comparing the data from those healthy patients to data from patients who aren't healthy, which is exactly what the five starting projects on ResearchKit are collecting.

Of course, Google is also collecting genetic data in the Baseline project, which is definitely not part of Apple's current vision. And ResearchKit, as an open-source product, has the potential to be much more far-reaching than a single study from Google, however groundbreaking.

Stanford Medicine is in the rare position of working with both ResearchKit and Google Baseline. Dr. Alan Yueng, who is a Stanford researcher who is involved with MyHeart Counts, one of the initial ResearchKit apps, but not directly involved with Google Baseline, said the difference between the two projects is a matter of depth versus breadth.

"It’s kind of two approaches, but both are important," Yeung told MobiHealthNews. "One [Google] is a very deep dive into a relatively small number of people -- but very deep, the data is a lot. And then you look at the outcome and you’ll be able to know what happens to them over time. The Apple approach, or our approach, is really to take a very large section of people -- we were hoping for 100,000 people -- and then be able to monitor a very large group of people, but the data is slightly dirty, because some people might not know how to use the phone. But because of the power of the number of people who are enrolled, you start to get good data out of there by sheer numbers."

Those two kinds of study, though they both depend on new kinds of data collection, are asking very different questions.

"For example, our exercise and heart [data] is looking at one facet of what determines heart health, but we’re obviously not collecting genetic data or detailed medical histories," he said. "But we want to ask one question and ask it of a very large population, whereas Google takes a very select population and learns as much as they can about that one person."

Apple and Google aren't competing in the clinical trial space, at least not yet. But even if they were, there would be plenty of room in the field. Medical research is a justifiably slow-moving, risk-averse space and to get the momentum to permanently change how it's done will take some big movers and shakers. Maybe the combined energies of Apple and Google will be enough.