The stethoscope has been at the forefront of medical diagnostic science for the entirety of its existence, even while the creation of sophisticated ultrasound technology threatens to change that. Stethoscope manufacturers like 3M, Thinklabs Medical and Eko Devices hope to keep the 200-year-old device relevant by taking advantage of advances in communications technology— specifically, the phenomenon referred to as “the Internet of things.” This phrase, coined around 2010, refers to the process by which more and more devices become both “smart” and “interconnected.”
According to the theory, in the not-so-distant future, everything from the toaster to the bathroom scale will be connected to the Internet and will be capable of sending relevant information to secure databases. This data will be collated and stripped of personal information, and then it will be sold to the highest bidder. Indeed, some marketers hope to advertise to you from your refrigerator, car dashboard, or treadmill. One benefit of this revolution, however, is that the humble stethoscope will receive its own makeover, and not for marketing purposes.
As technology that allows devices to send and receive data becomes cheaper—in no small part due to the desire of companies like Google to advertise to you everywhere you go—many innovators in the medical field are fitting stethoscopes with transmitters, and they’re creating apps to analyze the data they send. For instance, apps like the iMurmur from Thinklabs Medical allow students to listen in on heart murmurs and then compare them to normal heart sounds. The Eko stethoscope attachment from Eko Devices, meanwhile, converts sounds gathered by old-school analog stethoscopes into digital signals and then securely uploads them to the cloud. The device will only cost around $150, and it will fit most any modern stethoscope.
It won’t be long before smart stethoscopes are developed that monitor a patient’s heart continuously for signs of congestive heart failure. This condition generates a characteristic “galloping” sound in the heart which is very easy for a digital stethoscope to identify. These smart devices will be able to alert medical personnel to an impending heart event in time to save a patient’s life, and in many cases, the stethoscope will be aware of the event before the patient is.
All of this technology and interconnectivity may indeed be the boost that the medical field has been needing. A 1997 study published in the Journal of American Medical Association, for instance, revealed that most newly-minted doctors were unable to tell the difference between the most common heart murmurs. It’s all the more important, then, that stethoscopes should be made smarter so that they can help doctors analyze the heart’s myriad sounds in new ways.
Many medical practitioners are hopeful that smart devices like Google Glass will further increase the stethoscope’s utility. Via Bluetooth, a digital stethoscope and Glass can swap data so that Glass can keep the doctor abreast of any changes in a patient’s condition. Even better, doctors will operate devices like Glass via voice commands, allowing them to get more done. Furthermore, Glass will be capable of interpreting hand gestures, which will allow instructors to control or listen in on their student’s smart stethoscopes in real time without breaking the flow of their discourse.
While the Internet of things may prove invasive in some regards, it promises to revolutionize the way in which medical practitioners interact with their devices, allowing these experts to get more done with less expensive devices. With any luck, pricey ECG, ultrasound and MRI scans will give way to inexpensive, highly-sensitive stethoscopes that can monitor a patient over longer periods of time and display heart sound data in a myriad of ways.