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Why Apple’s New Health Studies Are So Groundbreaking

And how you can be a part of them.

Courtesy of Apple
Courtesy of Apple

Today Apple announced some game-changing news on health care research: the launch of three studies — the Apple Women’s Health Study, the Apple Heart and Movement Study and the Apple Hearing Study — that anybody with an iPhone and/or an Apple Watch will be able to participate in. 

Last week I got a chance to talk with Dr. Sumbul Desai, Apple’s VP of Health, and Professor Michelle Williams, Dean of Harvard’s School of Public Health, about what all three studies could mean for the future of medicine, and in particular for women’s health. “I’ve been a reproductive perinatal epidemiologist for 30 years, and this is a moment to really say women’s health matters,” says Williams. “We should invest in it, and we should engage women and inform women on all that can happen when we share data.”

And yet that hasn’t been happening. For decades, women have been underrepresented in medical research. As Dr. David Page, professor of biology at M.I.T., said, there’s been “an implicit assumption across much of medical research for decades that studying things in males alone is good enough.”

That’s why the women’s study is so groundbreaking. First, there’s the scale. Instead of a few hundred, or even a few thousand participants, the goal is to get one million women, or, as Dr. Desai puts it, “citizen scientists,” to participate. Next is duration, with the study planned to last at least 10 years. 

Apple will be teaming up with leading medical research groups for each study. And the goal of all three studies is to use everyday data to expand our notion of health care. Right now, about 75% of our health care spending goes toward the treatment of chronic, stress-related conditions that can be managed or even prevented. When you include mental health, that goes up to 90%. Instead of focusing only on downstream harm reduction, the granular and real-time data that will be collected in these studies will allow us to go upstream, and address the true causes of these conditions.

And the millions of iPhones and Apple Watches in use create the potential for deep insights into our everyday behavior and how it connects to our health and well-being. In the case of the women’s study, that will mean gathering information about menstrual cycles to help medicine better understand health issues in women ranging from migraines and menopause to fertility and osteoporosis.

As Dr. Desai told me, these studies are ultimately about much more than just data collection: “How do we really impact the conversation around focusing on being more proactive and preventative?” 

In addition to addressing the research gap, this move from Apple shows how technology can be used to help us enlarge our notion of health care. We don’t get sick in a vacuum. We’re shaped by the world around us. And, as Professor Williams told me, we now have the technology to understand how that world shapes our behavior and our well-being. “We can start to quantify subjectively and objectively how the environment, how the physical behaviors that we engage with, how we manage stress, to take the narrative way upstream,” she says. “This is the moment where we can demonstrate for everyone to see what we know statistically, that 80% of the factors that drive health and wellness are outside of the clinical medical space. And it’s in the environments where we work, live and play.”

Starting today, you can participate — and help take us all upstream — by downloading Apple’s Research app, available in the App Store here

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