Attention iPhone Users: Make Sure Your Heart Counts

03/17/2015 12:43 pm ET | Updated May 17, 2015
Stephen Lam via Getty Images

You probably heard last week's news about Apple launching a watch, a cool way for iPhone users to access their device from their wrist.

That news overshadowed something else the company launched the same day, something I think is even cooler because it could save and improve lives.

It's called ResearchKit. And just like Apple's watch could start a new era in wearable devices, this software framework could start a new era in medical research.

I realize the app world already is filled with medical offerings -- just like there are already plenty of terrific wearable devices. What could make these new offerings such game-changers is being backed by Apple.

2015-03-13-1426276293-6871888-MyHeartCounts.pngMyHeart Counts is one of the inaugural five apps developed using ResearchKit. As the name suggests, MyHeart Counts is focused on cardiovascular disease. It's part of a study conducted by Stanford University School of Medicine. Although my organization, the American Heart Association, is not involved in enrolling users into the study, or actively collaborating with Apple to promote ResearchKit, we are very pleased that the app is built upon heart disease and health metrics and advice compiled by some of our top volunteers. The Silicon Valley analogy I might use is, rather than "Intel inside," this is "AHA inside."

(Last summer, I wrote about another cardiovascular research study in which the AHA is helping recruit participants. It is called the Health eHeart Study, and is similar but different from MyHeart Counts.)

Dr. Michael V. McConnell is a professor of cardiovascular medicine at Stanford and the principal investigator of the MyHeart Counts study. It's my pleasure to let him take you on a deeper dive into this exciting new opportunity.


2015-03-13-1426275745-4267991-Dr.MichaelMcConnell.jpgDo you have an iPhone?

Is it with you pretty much all the time?

If you are among the millions of Americans who answer yes to both questions, then I'd like to offer you the opportunity to learn about your heart health and contribute to our future understanding of how to keep hearts healthy.

The value to you comes in three forms. The first two are tangible: a snapshot of your cardiovascular health right now, and, later, testing ways to improve your cardiovascular health tailored to your specific needs. Plus, there's a third item that's an intangible -- the feel-good of helping advance medical research.

All you need do is download the free MyHeart Counts app and spending some time reviewing the consent information. Then you just carry around your iPhone, as you probably already do -- while at working, exercising, running errands, etc.

What's the catch? Pretty simple: You have to care about your cardiovascular health.

You have to decide that your heart counts.

Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of Americans, and stroke is No. 5. While we're always getting better at treating these conditions, what we really need to do is get better at preventing them.

Physical activity is the best prescription. The next step is understanding -- and addressing -- your specific risks for heart disease and stroke. This means paying attention to the factors you are born with and those that develop from your lifestyle.

This is where MyHeart Counts can help.

Once you download the app and go through the consent process, MyHeart Counts will ask you to input your height, weight and age, and to answer questions about how much exercise and sleep you get. You'll be asked about your blood pressure and cholesterol numbers, and, if you are able, take a six-minute walk. You also can connect to other wearable devices you use.

The fact you are doing all this on your iPhone is part of the technological advancement. Better still is the fact the device's various sensors can measure the speed and distance of your walk. All these factors make this study, and this app, unique.

Over the first week, you'll be asked more questions about your diet, your health and wellness, and some daily check-ins to see what you did and how you slept.

If that sounds like a lot, you'll be relieved to know that no category has more than 10 questions, and most have less.

After a week, you'll receive that snapshot I promised. It will come in the form of some easy-to-understand numbers, such as your chances of having a heart attack or stroke in the next 10 years, and the chances of either occurring over their lifetime.

This risk assessment is based on the ASCVD Risk Estimator, a tool developed by the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology. This is a standard system used by cardiologists nationwide based on prevention guidelines released in 2013.

You'll also receive your "heart age," a calculation that gives additional perspective on what those risk-assessment numbers mean.

The aim is to provide an indication of how your heart is aging relative to the optimal cardiovascular health for someone your age. To offer a basic example, a healthy 52-year-old with very good cholesterol and blood pressure numbers may be declared to have the heart of a 50-year-old, while a 52-year-old smoker with elevated blood pressure may be deemed as having the heart of a 60-year-old.

You're encouraged to use the app for regular activity monitoring. About every three months, you'll be asked to check-in and update your information.

As we develop the app, we'll be tapping into resources from the American Heart Association such as MyLifeCheck and Heart360 to provide guidance customized to each user. You could also call it coaching, or offering motivational tools, all personalized.

This is another important, relatively unstudied area of preventative care -- the ongoing encouragement that can keep people who aren't heart patients from becoming heart patients.

The best way to provide this feedback -- texts, pop-ups or strictly in-app notifications -- and their frequency are also part of the research.

Now let's talk about the research potential for all this, which obviously is what ResearchKit is all about.

Research is the lifeblood of science, and data collection is the lifeblood of research. By bringing data collection to the iPhone, we are hoping to build massive volumes of information that can power all sorts of studies and clinical trials.

We aim to track whether people act on the advice given -- such as, if told to step up the amount of physical activity, does the user do it? We also could give different types of advice to see which gains better traction. Even the challenges of format and frequency for notifications are up for randomization and analysis.

This is why it's great to have iPhone users as our participants. Capturing even a small percentage of that community would provide us a wealth of information that can help shape the future of cardiovascular care. Apple will also be making ResearchKit "open source" soon, so broader use will be possible.

There are a few important things to note, starting with an understandably major concern -- privacy.

We're asking for the least amounts of data possible, with your personal information kept separate from your study data, which only has a random code. Thus, it becomes encrypted without your name. Users also will have the option of allowing us to share their data with other trusted researchers, or keeping it strictly at Stanford.

Also, the app is primarily designed to work with the iPhone 5s, 6 and 6 Plus as these have built-in motion chips that don't drain the battery. It's currently available only in English and in the United States, both of which we plan to expand. Additionally, the 10-year and lifetime projections are geared for people between ages 20 and 79.

Now that you have a better feel for what we are doing and why, I hope you'll join us. Please make your heart count.