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WebMD’s Health Pregnancy Study to recruit participants via Apple’s Research Kit

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Apple debuted ResearchKit, a platform that helps scientists recruit participants for studies, back in 2015. Since then, it has been used by the University of Oxford, Stanford Medicine, and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. And now, WebMD is joining the fray with its Health Pregnancy Study, an effort that will let pregnant women “easily and anonymously” answer questions and share data about their pregnancies with researchers.

“Pregnant women are one of the least studied populations in medical research,” Dr. Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute (STSI) and editor-in-chief of Medscape, said in a statement. “The results of our Healthy Pregnancy Study […] will ultimately provide expectant mothers, researchers, and health care professionals with new medical insights to avoid complications during pregnancy.”

The study, which is launching through WebMD’s newly redesigned Pregnancy app, is being conducted in partnership with the STSI. During a user’s pregnancy, it will ask specific questions about “medication use, vaccinations they may have received, pre-existing conditions, blood pressure and weight change, diagnoses during pregnancy, [and] childbirth location.” During the pregnancy, users will be able to share biometric data such as the number of steps taken and hours slept during pregnancy. And a post-pregnancy component will survey participants on “provider insights and interventions,” the birth size of the baby, and other factors.

As participants progress through pregnancy, WebMD’s Pregnancy app will provide visualizations of trends as data is collected, and allow users to compare their data with that of other pregnant women who share their traits.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 65,000 women in the United States have severe pregnancy complications each year, and that’s despite medical advances. As a result of chronic conditions such as high blood pressure and obesity, the rate of pregnancy-related deaths in the United States has increased over the past 25 years.

“Over 1.5 million people downloaded WebMD’s Pregnancy mobile app,” Dr. Hansa Bhargava, WebMD’s medical editor and in-house pediatric expert, said. “We will collect large amounts of diverse data that can help scientists and doctors to better understand factors that contribute to healthy pregnancies, [and] ultimately, this will help moms have healthy pregnancies and have healthier babies.”

The Health Pregnancy Study launches on the heels of Mount Sinai Hospital’s asthma patient survey, which used ResearchKit to crowdsource data from 7,600 participants.

It’s a growing trend. The idea of collecting medical research data via smartphones isn’t a new one — indeed, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) launched a project in 2013 to examine the feasibility of collecting phone-based surveys and text messages. But tools like Apple’s ResearchKit lower researchers’ barrier to entry. It’s not perfect — ResearchKit doesn’t support third-party operating systems like Android, for example — but for short-term studies that require rapid enrollment and frequent data collection, it’s useful in a pinch.

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