Over the past few years, just about all the major tech giants have shown significant interest in health. It’s basically now a necessity for smartphones and smartwatches to contain sensors, apps, and other features to monitor your health and fitness. And many of these companies are partnering with research institutions to analyze and mine user data for insights about our bodies, such as Apple’s and Stanford’s recently announced study to use Apple Watch data to identify cardiac arrhythmias.
One of the other notable studies uses technology from Verily (Alphabet’s life sciences division) and medical expertise from Stanford and Duke universities to learn what the “normal” measures of health are for a population and how genetics, lifestyle choices, and other factors affect these measures of health. It’s called the Baseline Study, and it’s a four year study of 10,000 subjects all over the United States utilizing both smartphone-based devices and old-fashioned in-clinic medical tests.
This editor was fortunate to qualify for the Baseline Study and spent two days last week at Stanford to get oriented, undergo a giant battery of medical tests and questionnaires, and finally receive the Verily gadgets. In this first part of a two (or more) part series, I share what happened during those two days and what the expectations are for study subjects for the next four years. For the second part, we’ll go through and review all the devices.
The first visit took place at the Stanford Center for Clinical Research (CRA), a building about three miles from the main campus. Interestingly, signs along the road revealed that the Apple Heart Study was being conducted at the same time at the same center. I was about the 90th subject to participate since Stanford opened up enrollment in mid-July. According to the clinical research associate that accompanied me throughout the day, a lack of space was already becoming an issue and preventing Stanford from accepting more participants; they hope to be able to recruit 1,000 subjects over the duration of the study and are expanding their hours to nights and weekends to ramp up enrollment.
The visit began with the mandated explanation of the study protocol and signing of the informed consent and other documents. This was already familiar, as the documents had been emailed to me with a visit reminder a few days prior. The CRA explained that, while most of the data and results won’t be disclosed to me, Verily is striving to make the study as open and transparent as possible. Any kind of biometric data I could obtain from a primary care physician should be readily available, and Verily is working to allow subjects to see more results from the study. It’s great to see the company working to better involve the subjects in clinical trials. Study subjects are typically blinded from data and results in clinical trials, and I think many participants will be interested to see some of the findings from this study.
Next, I was given my canvas Baseline-branded “swag bag” containing my Verily Study Watch, Study Hub, and EarlySense Live bed sensor. It was a nice touch that I was offered a choice from a selection of eight different polyelastomer and leather bands to complement my watch; I went with the more stylish brown leather, and was told that I might be receiving some other styles as gifts sometime in the future. My swag bag also included various other Baseline-branded tchotchkes: an aluminum bottle, pen, sticker, and t-shirt. I received an additional swag bag, but this one contained the necessary items to a return a stool sample. That one, thankfully, will be going back to Verily in a few days.
Next began the battery of medical tests spread out over two days. Vitals were taken and personal and family medical history was recorded. Blood, urine, saliva, tears, and swabs of various parts of the face were collected. Various breathing tests measured my pulmonary function. An ECG and an ankle-brachial index measurement was performed. My heart and lungs were imaged via X-ray and CT, and echocardiogram compared my heart’s structure, both before and after exercise. My eyes were checked, and I performed several tests that checked my balance, strength, and mobility. I completed several questionnaires about my mental and emotional health.
It was busy, but I was pleased that all the Stanford staff members I met over the two days were not only very courteous, kind, and enthusiastic about the study, but they took time to explain the importance of all the tests to the study, as well as to my personal health. Moreover, the Project Baseline Study “Science Journal” included in my swag bag explained each of the tests in greater detail. While I, as a biomedical engineer, already knew most of this information, I commend both the Stanford staff and Verily for making sure that subjects without a medical background felt comfortable and informed participating in the study.
So, for the next four years, I’ll be wearing the Study Watch daily and collecting data through the EarlySense mattress sensor nightly. I’ll be answering surveys and questionnaires occasionally and informing the Baseline team of significant health events through the Baseline study app, and will be returning to Stanford annually (and will be compensated for my participation). And as I was fortunate to be part of the first 100 subjects at Stanford, I’ll be considered for auxiliary studies and other events involving Stanford and Verily.
While some may be critical that subjects like myself will be giving potentially sensitive health data to a large tech company like Alphabet for the next four years, I think the company has done a good job at explaining just how important the results will be to the future of medicine. It’s a noteworthy endeavor by Alphabet to use its wearable, smartphone, and cloud technology to their greatest potential for the good of society. And I’m personally proud to be a part of it.
Interested in participating in the Baseline Study? Click here to visit the study’s homepage and see if there’s an enrollment site near you.
More info: Listing on ClinicalTrials.gov…