Not many physicians have time to be programmers. But E. Kevin Hall does, and he’s working on a ResearchKit app that he hopes will help patients.
Apple Senior Vice President of Operations Jeff Williams announces ResearchKit on March 9 in San Francisco.
Stephen Lam / Getty Images
When Yale cardiologist E. Kevin Hall isn't treating children with heart defects, he's writing code.
Using his combined knowledge of medicine and computer science, Hall is developing an app on ResearchKit, a new Apple software platform intended to transform the iPhone into a clinical research tool.
Hall has never put his medical and technological acumen together in quite this way. But new tools like ResearchKit are forging some unlikely unions between physicians and programmers. And Hall is both.
Health care has been relatively slow to embrace technology. Only about 60% of the nation's hospitals had electronic medical records in 2013, for example — though recent federal incentives have sped up adoption of the digital format.
In many ways, medical and technology professionals speak different languages and move at different paces. With ResearchKit, Apple is hoping to better align the two in pursuit of life-improving medical discoveries.
Finding patients is traditionally one of the biggest challenges in medical trials. But in the first few days after Apple unveiled ResearchKit on March 9, tens of thousands of people signed up for the first five apps developed on the platform.
That high level of participation astonished researchers worldwide. Among them was Hall, 41, director of Yale School of Medicine's Pediatric Heart Failure Program, which treats about 300 children.
“We're all being pushed by financial concerns in medicine these days and we have less and less time to see patients,” Hall told BuzzFeed News. “By allowing us to reach out and reach more people, [ResearchKit] takes away a lot of those troubles and therefore allows the research ideas to stand much more on their own merit.”
E. Kevin Hall
Courtesy Kevin Hall
The ResearchKit apps currently available are the joint efforts of researchers and programmers. Sage Bionetworks, a nonprofit with software for biomedical data analysis, partnered with the University of Rochester on an app for Parkinson's disease, and with the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, UCLA, and the University of Pennsylvania on a breast cancer app.
But when Apple published the open-source ResearchKit code late last month, Hall didn't have to search for a developer.
Hall has been interested in programming since he was a boy playing with his family's IBM PC. He built his own PCs for years, interned five times for Silicon Graphics — a now-defunct hardware and software manufacturer — and recently built an unreleased app for fun.
But Hall ultimately went the medical route for his day job, and arrived at Yale in 2010 after completing a medical degree at Trinity College in Ireland, a pediatric residency in Cleveland, and fellowships in Philadelphia and Boston.
What frustrates Hall is his lack of first-hand knowledge of how his young patients cope in everyday life with their heart diseases — or their risk of them — aside from what they self-report during appointments.
“The brief 20- or 30-minute visit we have every X weeks or X months with our patients is very limited and artificial,” he said.
Hall hopes to use his ResearchKit app to build a more complete picture of patients' conditions by collecting health information remotely. The iPhone's motion coprocessor, which can continuously measure data from the accelerometer, compass, gyroscope, and a new barometer, will assess users' fitness by tracking how far they can run or walk in a certain period of time. The app will also ask users questions about how medical conditions affect their day-to-day life.