Purdue Pharma Wants Data Gathered from Your iPhone

By Zachary Siegel 07/16/15

The developers of OxyContin are looking at new Apple software to use you as data.

iPhone ResearchKit
Photo via

Apple’s ResearchKit is another sign of medical research adapting to the 21st century, with new ways of collecting data beginning to emerge, trips to the hospital to fill out lengthy questionnaires may become a thing of the past.

Briefly, Apple’s ResearchKit is an open-source platform designed for medical and health-care researchers to gather data from participants using iPhone apps.

While this may sound promising to many, others are worried of Big Pharma encroaching on Apple’s new software, which would allow access to an unprecedented amount of data on potential consumers.

One of the Big Pharma companies getting in early on the action is Purdue Pharma, the multibillion-dollar drug company mired in controversy for false marketing, or even outright lying, about their addictive opioid, OxyContin.

Purdue recently told BuzzFeed that they are in the early stages of exploring Apple’s new tool, and whether they could use it for data collection as well as for drug research and development.

Purdue’s vice president, Larry Pickett Jr., told BuzzFeed, “We know that all these changes in tech are going to impact health care, but we don’t know exactly how."

“People have been talking about it for a long time, but haven’t been able to figure out how to leverage that data and take advantage of it," Pickett added. "My team views ResearchKit as a very significant milestone in being able to move that capability ahead.”

It’s unclear what the exact utility of ResearchKit would be for a company like Purdue, but their interest alone is telling.

Data collected by a smartphone’s sensor can provide a company interested in developing drugs a variety of information. Such as, are you struggling with a condition that causes a lack of mobility? The drug company could then look to your data points, collected by your iPhone’s motion sensors, and decide that you are a good candidate for their next pharmaceutical drug, which treats exactly that.

BuzzFeed asked Apple if they’re OK with for-profit pharmaceutical companies using ResearchKit to develop their products.

“We’re open to working with anybody that is going to make an impact on people’s health,” said Jeff Williams, Apple’s senior vice president of operations.

He went on to say, “We’ve made ResearchKit open-source so Apple won’t even control who uses it. We will control what we put on our App Store, but we won’t control who uses it. And so I think the promise of using ResearchKit for development of drugs—if they’re lifesaving, I think that’s a positive thing.”

A spokesperson from Apple noted the company's stance has always been that anyone can use ResearchKit if they abide by strict guidelines, which include oversight by an independent ethics review board, gaining a patient’s consent, and making explicit what the patient is really getting into for signing up.

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.