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Google Releases Health Studies Phone App

Man reading phone

(Courtney Clayton, Unsplash)

10 Dec. 2020. Google began offering a smartphone app yesterday that enables individuals to take part in medical studies. The first project using the Google Health Studies app is gathering data on respiratory conditions and illnesses, with researchers from Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital.

The app, for Android phones, is a free download from Google’s Play Store. The company says participants sign up for studies with the app that collects data in questionnaires posted on the phone. The app also displays reports on a person’s health, as well as findings from the enrolled research studies. Individuals may take part in multiple studies simultaneously with the Health Studies app.

Google says participants are informed and consent in advance of proposed uses of their data, which are protected and not employed elsewhere. The company says specifically participants’ data are not sold, shared with advertisers, or used to show advertising.

In addition, says Google, the app’s first study makes use of the company’s federated data collection and analysis procedures. Those procedures keep participants’ data on their devices, rather than stored centrally, similar to the Gboard feature that offers suggested text for speaking or writing on Android phones, performed locally rather than centrally. For analytics, in this case, data from individuals are encrypted and aggregated with data from other users, before they can be accessed by researchers.

The app’s first study seeks to better understand respiratory illnesses, including those resulting from Covid-19 infections and seasonal flu. The Respiratory Health Study, conducted by Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital, is open to adults in the U.S. Participants are asked to report on their overall health, any symptoms experienced, preventive steps being taken, and results of Covid-19 or influenza infection tests.

John Brownstein, a biomedical informatics professor at Harvard Medical School and chief innovation officer of Boston Children’s Hospital, says in a Google blog post that “research is now needed more than ever to develop more effective treatments and mitigation strategies,” to deal with Covid-19 and seasonal pathogens. Brownstein adds, “Google Health Studies provides people with a secure and easy way to take part in medical research, while letting researchers discover novel epidemiological insights into respiratory diseases.”

Apple has a 15-month head start on Google in using phones or wearable devices for health research. As reported by Science & Enterprise, Apple announced its health research app in September 2019, and began enrolling participants in studies using smartphones and watches in November of that year. Those first studies gather data on women’s health, heart health, and hearing.

In August of 2020, as we reported, Apple and UCLA began studying depression, as a result of Covid-19 restrictions and other causes, using smartwatches. And in November, data from Fitbit activity trackers and Apple devices, combined with symptom reports, were shown to help detect likely Covid-19 cases. Google announced plans in November 2019 to acquire Fitbit, but the merger is held up pending regulatory review.

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