Researchers from Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School have launched an app-based research project to study the spread of COVID-19, influenza and other respiratory illnesses through a partnership with Google.
It’s the first project to launch as part of Google Health Studies, an Android app Google launched Wednesday. It’s an effort to make it easier for researchers to recruit volunteers from across the country to participate in medical research, according to Google, by letting researchers design studies that ask participants to answer survey questions and contribute data through the app.
The Google Health Studies app, which is only available on Android smartphones, is similar to Apple’s ResearchKit—a software tool that Apple launched in 2015, which lets researchers develop iOS apps for clinical studies.
The study from Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School prompts participants to self-report their symptoms, preventive measures they’re taking, and—as applicable—test results and vaccinations on a weekly basis. It also tracks location and mobility, such as the number of daily trips a participant takes outside of the home.
The researchers’ goal is to better distinguish between respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19 and the flu, as well as better understand how these diseases spread in communities and differ based on risk factors like age. That includes looking at settings in which illnesses tend to be transmitted, a question of particular interest amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. John Brownstein, a professor at Harvard Medical School and chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital, on a call with reporters said he expects apps and mobile technology to “at least partially” be a solution to challenges researchers face today with initially recruiting participants for medical research, as well as maintaining their engagement over time.
“It’s hard to market (studies) to patients,” said Brown, one of the researchers leading the respiratory health study. “The challenge of recruitment is one of the major pillars of why many studies in fact fail—because they just don’t get enough patients.”
Brownstein said the study plans to recruit around 100,000 participants across the U.S.
The app will also collect demographic data like age, gender and race, which collaborators said will help researchers assess whether the study is representative of the general population. Brown acknowledged an area to dig into is how lack of access to high-speed internet or smartphones in some populations affects the inferences that can be drawn from the app-based study.
“It’s clearly a challenge,” he said. “But the vast majority of the U.S. population does have mobile phones, so it often just becomes a question of what platform do these people really reside in.”
The Google Health Studies launch will make it easier to bring app-based studies to a broader segment of the population, according to industry analysts. Fifty-two percent of smartphone users in the U.S. run on Google’s Android operating system, according to market research firm Statista. Apple’s iOS accounts for 47%.
“While many will look at this as a counterpart to Apple’s Research app efforts, ultimately everyone benefits as we need to continue to increase access to real-world data and real-world evidence,” wrote Arielle Trzcinski, a senior analyst at market research firm Forrester, in an emailed statement.
Participants’ data collected through the Google Health Studies app is encrypted and will only be used for purposes they consent to as part of the specific research study they join, according to Google. Data won’t be sold or shared with advertisers.
The respiratory health study also uses federated learning and analytics, an approach that will keep participants’ data stored on their own device, said Jon Morgan, a product manager at Google Health, on the call with reporters. Researchers will only be able to view aggregate data from multiple devices, not individual-level data.
Morgan added that the app will share inferences about a participant’s mobility, such as how much time they spend outside of their home, but not specific location data. That could help to assuage concerns over privacy and lack of trust that consumers and privacy advocates have raised about about tech giants entering healthcare, which have plagued Google in particular in recent years.
“The individualized data is never leaving the device,” Morgan said. “It’s always inferred statistics.”