An App to Improve Heart Health

Alan Yeung, MD, and Michael McConnell, MD

In March, Stanford cardiologists launched MyHeart Counts—a new mobile app that enables users to contribute to a large-scale study of heart health while learning about their own cardiovascular risk.

The public reception was overwhelming. To date, over 41,000 users have signed up for the free app and consented to participate in the study, and the number continues to climb. Apps may be a relatively new frontier of medicine, but they have the potential to reach large populations that traditional medical studies can’t. “There have been larger research studies, particularly national efforts to study their populations, but we believe enrolling this many participants in such a short time frame is unprecedented,” Michael McConnell, MD (professor, Cardiovascular Medicine), told Stanford Medicine earlier this year.

The goal of MyHeart Counts, McConnell said, is “to be the largest study of measured physical activity and cardiovascular health to date.” He continued, “We want people to join in this research effort to give them personalized information about their heart health and help provide fundamental new insights into how activity helps your heart, across all ages, genders, cultures, and countries.”

MyHeart Counts is one of the first five apps to use Apple’s ResearchKit, an open source software framework specifically designed for medical and health research.

The app relies on questionnaires, surveys, and the iPhone’s built-in motion sensors to collect data on cardiac risk factors, lifestyle behaviors, and physical activity. After an initial survey of basic health information – including age, weight, sleep patterns, daily exercise routines – users participate in a seven-day assessment of physical activity and complete a six-minute walk. Participants are then asked to check in with the app every three months.

Once users’ data has been collected, it is then used for research. As McConnell explained: “There are two major elements to the study. One is collecting data as broadly as possible on physical activity, fitness, and cardiovascular risk factors, which provides important feedback to the participants and helpful research data for our study. The second is studying ways to help people enhance activity and fitness, and decrease their chances of heart disease.”

Five months after its debut, researchers launched MyHeart Counts in Hong Kong and the United Kingdom. At the same time, they released a new version of the app that focuses on providing participants with more feedback about their individual behaviors and risk, and compares an individual user’s fitness data to other participants.

“We are very excited to be able to take MyHeart Counts global,” said Euan Ashley, MD (professor, Cardiovascular Medicine), a co-investigator for the MyHeart Counts study. “Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer worldwide, and we have an unprecedented opportunity to study risk factors such as physical activity, fitness, and sleep in countries around the world.”

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