The stethoscope was invented in 1816 by French physician René Laennec. Laennec pioneered the device for two closely interrelated reasons: female patients resented the fact that physicians had to place their ears close to their bodies, and physicians disliked having to get so close to patients—patients who often harbored lice. Laennec’s first stethoscope was little more than a thick tube of paper, and it took around 20 years for the device to find widespread acceptance. Since Laennec’s time, several inventors have improved upon the basic design, culminating in Dr. David Littmann’s game-changing designs of the early 1960s.
Today, where innovation often occurs first within computers in the form of complex simulations, many stethoscope designs are being proposed by young computer engineers. From app developers to engineering students, young people all over the world are giving the nearly 200-year-old device a makeover for the new millennium. Here’s a quick who’s who of these enterprising young adults.
15-year-old Suman Mulumudi counts his father among his inspirations. Mahesh Mulumudi, a cardiologist, would often recount to Suman the challenges of cardiology. Chief among these is the fact that quality stethoscopes are expensive, and that analog stethoscopes provide no visual feedback. Suman, determined to help his father overcome these limitations, took to his second-hand MakerBot 3D printer and created an iPhone case that contained a plastic diaphragm and a series of tubes. The diaphragm, when placed against the chest, is capable of picking up even faint heart sounds, and the plastic tubes channel these sounds to the iPhone’s microphone. There, an iPhone app, known as Steth IO, amplifies the sounds and generates a waveform.
Suman’s father, impressed with his son’s invention, and convinced that it could reduce the number of expensive echocardiograms he would have to perform, helped his son found StratoScientific. The company’s goal is to make the Steth IO affordable and to bring it to market as soon as possible. When Suman isn’t revolutionizing an industry, he enjoys biking and playing the bassoon for his school’s band.
Hon Weng Chong
Pneumonia kills more children worldwide than any other malady, and it is a huge problem in third world countries where access to fresh water may be limited. The illness, characterized by inflammation of the lungs and an overproduction of mucus, is typically caused by proliferation of bacteria in the lungs. The condition is manageable with antibiotics, but doctors in affected areas are sometimes forced to ration medications. This requires that children be thoroughly tested for the disease before they receive treatment, and unfortunately, these tests can sometimes take days.
Hon Weng Chong, 24, has set out to change this. The Melbourne Medical School student sought to create a tool that could diagnose pneumonia on the spot by listening to and analyzing breathing. The physical component of his device costs only $20 to produce. It consists of a microphone encased within a standard stethoscope chestpiece and connected to a smartphone’s headphone jack.
The device captures audio from the stethoscope and channels it into the dedicated smartphone app, StethoCloud. There, the app compares a patient’s breathing pattern with those of known pneumonia patients with a sophisticated algorithm. The app then asks the operating nurse or doctor how long the patient has had symptoms. Finally, it returns a percent chance that the child has pneumonia. If above a certain threshold, the medical practitioner can feel confident in administering medication.
Connor Landgraf, a student at UC Berkeley, founded Eko Devices with six of his peers. As CEO, Landgraf oversees the development of sophisticated diagnostic tools that—like many others—takes advantage of the power of today’s smartphones. According to Landgraf, one in every four doctors are poorly trained in the use of the stethoscope. To solve this problem, Eko Devices plans to release inexpensive stethoscope attachments that amplify and record heart sounds. Doctors will be able to transfer the sounds via Bluetooth and then upload them to the cloud for later analysis.
These young inventors aren’t the first to modernize the classic stethoscope, nor will they be the last. However, in a world where the classic diagnostic device is under threat by emerging hand-held technology, these modifications may extend the life and utility of the stethoscope considerably.