Powering the UK’s Largest Virtual Study

We all have that relative, or friend, who believes they can sense a change in the weather due to aches and pains in their body. In 2016 the epidemiology team at University of Manchester set out to answer the age-old question: does the weather influence pain?

Where do you start to answer such a question? How can we collect people’s health data and monitor how they feel on a daily basis while tracking the weather conditions?…
Enter smartphones. With 95% of the UK population owning a smartphone* the ubiquity of the devices delivers the perfect BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) solution.

Smartphones track users GPS signals. Using this data provides insights into weather conditions based on someone’s location. Combine this with the functionality of the uMotif app, that helps people capture and submit their health symptoms, and the method to answer the question becomes possible.

Collaborating with researchers from the University of Manchester on the study requirements Team uMotif designed and built a study portal available by downloading the uMotif mobile app. The app enabled people to provide their eConsent and track their arthritis, fibromyalgia, migraine and neuropathic symptoms. The study was aptly coined “Cloudy With a Chance of Pain”.

Next came the challenge to recruit enough participants for a statistically sound sample size to power the study. Initial predictions for the recruitment goal stood at 2,000 participants. The researchers undertook a huge recruitment drive, including a BBC Breakfast feature, and staggeringly 13,207 people joined over the duration of the study. At a certain point, the registration rate reached one participant per second. The final analysis was conducted on 2,658 participants.

Alongside building the smartphone app, Team uMotif produced a dedicated website to host the Cloudy With a Chance of Pain community. Initially the website enabled recruitment and a thorough onboarding process for people joining the study. Once the study was in flight, the website then provided a go-to point for people to keep up to date throughout the study. With the project running for a total of 15 months, updates from the study team and participant community were critical in keeping people engaged and submitting their data.

Due to the huge number of participants and the virtual nature of the study it was possible to cover the entire geographical breadth of the UK. The study included a participant from each of the 124 UK postal codes. A feat impossible in a typical study because of the inconvenience, and expense, of people travelling to dedicated hospitals and sites.

On 24 October 2019 the results of the study were published in the “nature” journal. The key finding is that there is indeed a link between weather and pain. Surprisingly a change in humidity is the factor that is most strongly related to people’s pain, with wind speed and temperature proving supplementary factors. Full study results available here.

The researchers hope that Cloudy With a Chance of Pain has opened the door into this research area and in the future people can look into why humidity is linked to pain.

Team uMotif look forward to the future of powering more virtual trials and helping researchers answer questions that were previously hindered or impossible to answer.

*Percentage of households with mobile phones in the United Kingdom from 1996 to 2018.