Helping patients to recover from their illnesses and return to their full health has always been the primary objective in the healthcare profession. While traditional methods are indeed tried-and-tested and have served the industry well, healthcare professionals need to constantly improve existing methods or find new ways in order to provide better care for patients. Thus, medical research is crucial in the ever-changing world where new discoveries are made, and new diseases are constantly uncovered.

Dr. Helen Link Egger from Duke University Medical Center noted this: "We’ve gone as far as we can with traditional research. Now we have technology in our pockets that lets us go even further.” She referred to the ResearchKit by Apple as an example, an open-source framework which medical researchers can easily use to build and customise mobile apps to meet certain needs in their research. As the world becomes increasingly digitised, more and more mobile apps have popped up across all industries to perform all sorts of functions. Though some medical mobile apps are viewed with scepticism by some healthcare professionals, if their potential is properly harnessed by medical researcher, these apps can become useful tools to assist their research.

Easier data collection and participants

With a customised mobile app, researchers can collect data more easily from participants. For example, surveys, participants’ consents as well as active tasks can be incorporated when researcher customise their apps, making data collection an easier task. Medical researchers also tend to struggle with recruiting participants for their studies. A low number of participants would not provide a large enough sample base to justify the applicability of their research or generate enough data to verify a certain hypothesis. These days, many people own a mobile phone and researchers would have access to a larger and more diverse pool of participants should they utilise a mobile app in their research. Results are likely to be more accurate as well, owing to the diversity of participants.

The University of Rochester and Sage Bionetworks were able to recruit the largest study group for Parkinson’s up to date through the use of a mobile app for their research. Known as “mPower”, the researchers made use of specific features of the smartphone to further understand Parkinson’s disease. This app can measure dexterity, balance, gait and memory, and researchers have so far found factors that negatively or positively contribute to sleep, mood and exercise. A total of 10,000 participants were enrolled in the study, and 93% has never participated in any such research before this. Hence, the accessibility and convenience of mobile apps can encourage participation and data collection to further understand a disease.

Earlier diagnosis through apps

The earlier patients receive treatment for their conditions, the better they will be able to recover from their illnesses. Thus, early diagnosis and recognition of symptoms can be crucial to the outcome of the patient’s treatment. Being a developmental disorder, individuals diagnosed with autism can have favourable outcomes if the condition is recognised and treated early, enabling them to have better communication, social and interactive skills. Duke University and the University of Cape Town created the app “Autism & Beyond”. With the use of the front-facing camera, facial recognition algorithms have been integrated to examine the emotional reactions of the child. The app removes the need for a specialist to constantly monitor or perform screening on the child as the app can be used anywhere, anytime. Autism can therefore be detected more easily and the child can receive the necessary treatment for a better future.

While mobile apps have supported medical research greatly, limitation to their usage still exists. Clinical trial-based studies, for example, have more stringent guidelines and processes which are more manual and cannot be carried out through mobile apps. Mobile apps are thus ideal for medical research that requires gathering a large amount of data from participants and less intervention from the researchers. However, it is undeniable that the use of mobile apps in medical research has brought forward astonishing and groundbreaking results thus far, and further integration of mobile apps as tools for medical research awaits in the future of medical research. MIMS

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