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How Apple and Stanford are speeding up medical discoveries

July 8, 2020, 9:30 PM UTC

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the extent to which technology and medicine often move at vastly different speeds, sometimes complicating contact tracing, vaccine development, and telehealth.

But on Wednesday, health leaders at Apple and Stanford University School of Medicine celebrated some of the ways in which they have learned to work together productively—and to speed up the academic medical process without losing its scientific rigor.

“A really important part of the work we do is really thinking about: What is the science that we’re bringing to bear, and is it grounded in evidence? And then how do we take that and make it usable?,” said Dr. Sumbul Desai, Apple’s vice president of health, during a panel discussion at Fortune’s virtual Brainstorm Health event.

In November, Stanford researchers published the results of their Apple Heart Study in the New England Journal of Medicine, finding that wearable devices (like Apple Watches) could detect irregular heart beats. The clinical study, which was funded by Apple, enrolled more than 419,000 participants over eight months—a large and remarkably fast accomplishment for a clinical trial, and “far beyond what we anticipated,” Desai said.

Dr. Lloyd Minor, dean of Stanford University School of Medicine, agreed that large tech companies’ ability to scale rapidly has led to a partnership that’s “certainly been beneficial to those of us in academic medicine.”

“Enrolling over 400,000 people in an entirely virtual clinical trial over the course of eight months—I mean, who would have thought that was possible?” he added. “It yielded some very valuable results.”

There are still some large areas of medicine that remain relatively untouched by the latest technology, including the United States’ complicated and unwieldy electronic health records system. Though Apple got into the EHR arena in 2018, Minor pointed out that the most commonly used EHR systems today are “legacy systems based on 1970s architecture.”

“We still transmit records by fax machines in health care today,” he said, adding that Apple’s EHR efforts are “very empowering for all of us, and it’s a start. But we still have a long way to go to really make electronic health records interoperable, and to make them serve the needs of our patients and health care providers.”