Bluetooth is a wireless technology that’s utilized by virtually all modern “smart” devices. The technology allows these devices to transmit data over short-term radio. Powering everything from remote point-of-purchase systems to cordless headsets, the technology breaks data down into packets and transmits them over radio at a frequency between 2.4 and 2.485 GHz. The technology is managed by the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, which is a non-profit conglomeration of organizations made up of researchers and manufacturers.
Although Bluetooth is short range, it can transmit data to Internet-enabled devices, which can then upload the data to the Web. Given how ubiquitous the Internet has become, the range of Bluetooth in the field is effectively limitless. This renders the technology ideal for use with wireless devices that are permanently connected to the Web, such as Google Glass. However, Bluetooth can also be integrated into electronic stethoscopes, and it can even be made to work with analog stethoscopes via inexpensive attachments.
Many experts in the medical space are predicting that Google Glass will be made to work with Bluetooth-enabled stethoscopes. Such a system would have significant advantages given that Google Glass is a hands-free device. Doctors could upload a patient’s stethoscope readings to a database with a voice command, and once Glass knows who the doctor is treating, it can display the patient’s medical records on-screen. The device will even be able to warn the doctor of any allergies the patient may have to popular medications.
Smartphones are also being tapped in the effort to revitalize the stethoscope. Apps are being developed that allow smartphones to interact with stethoscopes directly. For instance, the StethoCloud, created by Australian medical student Hon Weng Chong, features an inexpensive stethoscope attachment that adds a microphone to any acoustic stethoscope, allowing it to be plugged into a smartphone. The StethoCloud app then generates a visual waveform based on the heart sounds it receives. Its complex algorithm can recognize the waveform of common heart maladies, such as murmurs.
15-year-old Suman Mulumudi, in an effort to make his father’s job as a cardiologist easier, created a stethoscope on his MakerBot 3D printer. The stethoscope, which consists of a plastic diaphragm and a series of plastic tubes, has one remarkable trait: it’s printed atop an iPhone case. Like the StethoCloud, the Steth IO also features a sophisticated iPhone app that analyzes the sounds it receives. Printing costs currently prohibit mass-production of Mulumudi’s sophisticated iPhone case, but this may change as 3D printers come down in price.
Finally, conventional electronic stethoscopes, which amplify the sounds they detect several times, are now being produced with Bluetooth transmitters, which allows them to be used with nearby wireless receivers. This proves useful for doctors that use hearing aids, as well as instructors who wish to demonstrate proper auscultation practices to small groups of students in the field.
Given the growing number of smartphone apps that analyze stethoscope data from indie developers, it won’t be long until electronic smartphone manufacturers begin designing their own apps. These apps will enable doctors to upload their patients’ recordings directly to their electronic health records, or EHRs. Ultimately, Bluetooth technology will allow doctors to access anyone’s medical history immediately, which can mean the difference between life and death in emergency situations.