WebMD, Scripps Translational Science Institute launch ResearchKit study on pregnancy

By Heather Mack

Scripps Translational Science Institute and WebMD are launching a new smartphone-based Apple ResearchKit study on pregnant women to improve research as well as resources for expectant mothers.

The Healthy Pregnancy Study is built on a newly updated version of WebMD’s popular Pregnancy app, and participants will be asked to anonymously answer questions and share connected device data with researchers in effort to help them better understand what makes pregnancies – and their outcomes – healthy.

To get these insights, researchers need more data, and even though having children isn’t exactly an uncommon phenomenon, experts say research in this area is relatively outdated and lacking in scope. And this dearth of information could be part of what’s driving an increase in pregnancy-related deaths in the United States in the past 25 years. In spite of medical advances, some 65,000 women have severe pregnancy complications every year.

“Pregnant women are considered vulnerable subjects in clinical research and are often left out because of safety concerns,” Dr. Hansa Bhargava, a pediatrician and medical editor for WebMD told MobiHealthNews in an email. “The Research Kit here is unique in that it is taking real time data from a diverse group of pregnant women, which we can then study to determine patterns. The hope is that these patterns can help us better preventative care for both the mom and the baby.”

Women who choose to participate will be asked about their medication use, any pre-existing conditions or diagnoses during pregnancy, blood pressure and weight change, and any vaccinations they may have had during the pregnancy. Those who are using devices to track things like sleep and physical activity will also be asked to share that biometric data. The study continues after the baby is born, as participants will be asked to share basics like the birth weight as well as provider insights and any interventions. Over time, women will be able to see visualizations of their data trends and compare them to those of other women in the study.

“As we collect more data through this app, we hope to show women how their data compare to other women with similar characteristics as themselves. For example, we plan to look at weight change over time during a pregnancy stratified by race, height, number of prior pregnancies, age, etc.,” Jennifer Radin, an epidemiologist at STSI told MobiHealthNews in an email. “We also hope use physiological measurements collected from the app to help predict the development of certain pregnancy complications, such as pre-eclampsia, earlier.”

They hope to enroll hundreds of thousands of women and run the study for many years. With the ease of participation and relatively high engagement with the app already (more than 1.5 million people have downloaded the WebMD Pregnancy app), researchers expect a large turnout for the study.

“We have integrated ResearchKit into WebMD’s existing app, thus casting a wider net over potential participants and increasingly their likelihood of continued engagement,” Ben Greenberg, WebMD’s VP of Mobile Products, said in an email. “Users don't have to remember to come back to our app to simply participate in a study - they're coming to the app anyway in order to engage with WebMD’s trusted physician reviewed content and tools to support their pregnancies. The vision is that this wider set of users and increased engagements will give us more opportunity to collect quality data for the study.”

The idea of designing large-scale studies using ResearchKit is getting more and more popular, and a recent study out of Mount Sinai demonstrated the feasibility of conducting some studies entirely via smartphones. Additionally, it will hopefully make for a more inclusive sample of the population.

“Typically, minorities and people living in rural areas are less represented in research studies. Since this app is open to anyone with an iPhone living in the US, we hope to capture a very diverse geographic and socioeconomic population,” Bhargava said. “This will help us identify disease patterns, and hopefully help ‘personalize’ advice, even more, that we give depending on different characteristics of the pregnancy. We are excited about the information that this allows us to collect and potentially act upon.”