Federal Grant Spurs New mHealth Research

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The University of California-San Francisco will develop a mobile health research platform connecting researchers with one million volunteers, hoping to validate the clinical usefulness of new mHealth technologies.

Under a $9.75 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, the platform—called Health ePeople—will be used to study a broad range of diseases and conditions to evaluate the effectiveness of wearable sensors and health apps.

According to NIH officials, mHealth has potential to provide researchers with data that may shed new insights into factors that lead to disease, but few studies to date have leveraged the technologies. Part of the problem, they say, is the cost and challenges associated with collecting health data from a large patient population using different mobile devices. However, with the new NIH-funded platform, a large cohort of patients could be more easily randomized—taking years off of the recruitment process—and making it easier to collect data.

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“There is a real need for a more robust and uniform of way of approaching mHealth studies,” says Richard Conroy, director of the Division of Applied Science and Technology at NIH’s National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering. “We recognized that there needs to be some kind of platform that people can easily go to in order to carry out the studies.”

Conroy hopes the Health ePeople platform will go a long way toward building up the clinical “evidence base” for mHealth technologies, which he believes is lacking. The new platform will leverage work that UCSF researchers have previously done on their Health eHearts platform, which among other capabilities enables participants to easily donate information from their electronic health records regardless of the hospital or institution from which they originate.

Although the Health eHearts platform focused on cardiovascular health, Gregory Marcus, M.D., an associate professor at the UCSF School of Medicine, argues that “all of that experience” is going to contribute to making the new NIH-funded platform a success in enrolling one million participants for the cohort.

“People will be able to contribute to meaningful, rigorous research from the convenience of their home and work,” says Marcus, who is one of three principal investigators at UCSF leading the development of the Health ePeople platform. Among the goals of the project, according to Marcus, is to create a “self-sustainable” infrastructure. He adds that the platform will be open source with the code posted publicly. In addition, Marcus reveals that all data that contributed to the initiative will go into a common data repository that will be available for analysis by researchers.

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