Securing Funding for Your Mobile Research: It Starts With Your Research Grant
Research conducted in 2015 from the Pew Research Center paints a compelling picture about how Americans are using mobile technology, particularly "smart phones" with internet access, as part of their daily life. A few tidbits:
- 64% of American adults now own a smartphone (Approx 158M according to 2015 U.S. Census Data)
- 62% of those smartphone owners have looked for health-related information through their smartphone in the last year (Approx 98M)
While this data is certainly not surprising, it is indicative of a big opportunity when it comes to patient data in medical research. But acknowledging the opportunity is only half the battle—how do researchers bake this into their grant writing process to make mobile research a reality for them?
It comes down to augmenting three key segments of the well-known grant model:
And adding a section that may potentially be new to some of us: technology.
Methodology: Define your data collection methods
Here's where it's important to define if mobile data collection will be a companion to traditional (i.e. in-clinic, hand-written surveys) means of your data collection, or the primary means of your patient data collection. There are emerging models that offer a spectrum of utility for mobile health (mHealth) research applications:
Traditional: In-clinic visit, self-reported offline surveys (no mHealth component)
Hybrid: In-clinic visits + patient "homework" (i.e. mobile data collection)
Mobile: Patient mobile data collection (all mHeath)
Depending upon your target funding source, you may find varying levels of comfort with more novel data collection approaches. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other organizations have allocated funding particularly for mHealth research, so that is a great indicator that utilizing mobile health for primary data collection is not so far fetched.
Once you define your methodology based upon the models above—and for the sake of this information we're assuming at least the hybrid model will be your intended methodology—you need to further define the use of active or passive mobile data collection:
ACTIVE DATA COLLECTION:
This is the most straight forward use of mHealth apps as it stands today. This is mostly defined as surveys completed by the patient. Apple's ResearchKit has several off-the-shelf modules ready to go, including a survey module, consent, and active tasks (which invites patients to complete specific tasks).
PASSIVE DATA COLLECTION:
The automatic collection of "sensed" patient data as it is available through custom or off-the-shelf solutions like Apple's ResearchKit. Right now this includes accelerometer data (speed in which the phone moves), and gyroscopic data (tilt motion) with the iPhone, so the utility of those can be applied to certain conditions, but would most likely be within the context of an "active task" mentioned above. Where passive data collection gets exciting is on the Apple Watch, which allows for more biometric data to be collected including heart rate and physical activity. The use of the Watch in app form must be coupled with a phone app, so there are certain costs of entry in this form of data collection. It also requires that the patient have an Apple Watch, which has a lower adoption rate at present than the iPhone.
Creating line items for everything you need is difficult when you're unfamiliar with the technology solutions you will ultimately need. That said, you will need to allocate cost for:
App discovery: What you would like your mobile research app to do vs what is actually feasible with the available technology
App design: The money associated with creating the visual interface that your patients will experience with as they participate in the surveys, active tasks, etc.
App development: The money associated with building the app itself, as well as any testing of or maintenance to the app to make sure it works and can be improved as you get initial patient feedback
A third-party design vendor will be able to furnish any hard costs for you associated with planning for, designing, and building your app. Your job in the grant writing process is to collaborate with a vendor early on to help you establish these costs. Another option is to partner with another researcher who has received grant money for an app and ask for their input.
An element to consider in working with an app vendor is their ability to provide all of the aforementioned services. Will they design the app based on your specifications, but need help actually building it? If so, you may need another third-party collaborator. This is an important and often overlooked area of clarification. If you do not allocate budget for design, or allocate budget for development with a vendor who does not also design your app, you could run into a funding obstacle.
Alternatively, if you are affiliated with an academic or research institution, you may be able to tap into their technology team (or Information Technology group) for some of these services, which may bring down the cost. Many institutions have a technology team that can assist researchers, and the projects they work on now include the building and maintenance of online registration databases for clinical trial enrollment. If you're unsure what services your institution provides, reach out to a technology representative and inquire. You may be surprised at the breadth of services they offer.
Creating time-based milestones for a mobile research app is largely dependent upon the complexity of the app. A very basic app comprised of consent and survey modules with very little design can be spun up in as quickly as 3-4 weeks. But the important thing to remember here is that an app is only as effective as a patient's willingness to use it. The more intuitive the design, the more added features prompt user engagement, then the more qualitative and quantitative data you will derive from your research app.
It is important to balance the benefits of having a quickly developed app versus a highly usable app. If the goal is quality data, you may want to allow more timing (and budget) in your grant for discovery and design.
For some, this is an entirely new element to their existing grant format. But mobile health apps require information on the intended technology solution because the complexity of the solution will impact budget, timing, patient reach, and so forth. It absolutely cannot be omitted for any mHealth research grant application.
By and large your technology solution will be focused on software – that is the actual application for patient data collection. But you will need to explain how you're collecting data, where the data will be stored, how you will keep that data secure, and how you will access that data to analyze your findings.
Data collection: Data will usually be collected through your mobile application (how the patients will provide that data, and how patients will consent to the provision of their data, should be covered in your methodology)
Data storage: The patient data has to go somewhere for you to be able to access it. That somewhere is usually a server at a fixed location, or in a cloud-based location, wherein you and your other investigators will have access to it.
Data security: The most important aspect of data storage is security—you must have means for keeping the digital data secure, just as you would with a locked file cabinet for your hard copy patient records. HIPAA compliancy must be adhered to and referenced in your grant submission.
Data analysis: How will the data be served to you once it has been collected? There needs to be an understanding of what computer database application will receive your data and make it possible for you to analyze your results. The benefit with several off-the-shelf data applications is that they offer HIPAA compliant security on their portion of the data storage and transfer. That is to say, their receipt of the data and presentation of the data meets HIPAA compliance criteria.
This is an introduction to the elements that will be impacted when submitting for a medical research mobile application grant. Speak with your institution and fellow researchers on what services are provided that may assist you as you develop your mobile research idea. Once you have a comprehension for all the steps involved, the grant submission is just a matter of documenting your idea.