Google launches health research app


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Google announced Wednesday that it is launching a new research app for Android phones, which would allow anyone with a device to participate in medical studies. The first study run through the app, called Google Health Studies, will look at respiratory illnesses like the flu and COVID-19.

Participants in the study will use the app to report any respiratory symptoms, the precautions they’re taking to prevent disease, and whether they’ve been tested for COVID-19 or the flu. The app will collect demographic data, like age, gender, and race as well. “Researchers in this study can examine trends to understand the link between mobility (such as the number of daily trips a person makes outside the home) and the spread of COVID-19,” Google wrote in a press release.

The app will send data to researchers using a technique called federated learning, which will batch aggregated trends from multiple devices, rather than pull information from each participant individually.

Health Studies is Google’s answer to Apple’s Research app, which runs on iOS devices. Last year, it launched studies on menstrual cycles, mobility and heart health, and hearing. Apple also lets researchers build their own iPhone apps through its ResearchKit program.

Studies run through the app will come with the same caveats as research from other commercial wearable products: they can only enroll people who can purchase products like an Android phone. Aggregated data is a good way to protect privacy, but it means researchers aren’t able to take a granular look at information.

Android phone users have a lower median income than iPhone users, which might be a benefit for Google Health Studies. “Android represents probably a more diverse dataset [than iPhone]. We’re pretty excited about the ability to leverage that,” John Brownstein, a chief innovation officer of Boston Children’s Hospital working on the study with Google, told Stat News.