For over 100 years, the stethoscope has allowed doctors to listen on the inner workings of their patients’ bodies. This non-invasive tool makes it relatively easy to listen to the heart, lungs and lower GI tract. A skilled doctor can detect heart murmurs—a potentially life-threatening abnormality—just by interpreting the gurgling sounds these rips in the heart muscle generate within the valves of the heart. Stethoscope design has come a long way since its early days as a paper tube, but now one company, Thinklabs Medical, has set out to radically redefine it.
Thinklabs Medical, founded in 1991 by Caltech graduate Clive Smith, gained fame in 2011 after releasing the Thinklabs One iPhone app. The app, when plugged in to any electronic stethoscope, converts the sounds it receives into easy-to-read waveforms. The app also allows users to zoom into the waveforms as well as save them. Patients can even email the sounds to their medical practitioner. Thinklabs Medical was founded on the idea that modern technology can provide innovative solutions like Thinklabs One.
The Digital Stethoscope
Today, the company is spearheading the concept of the digital stethoscope. For decades, doctors have utilized electronic stethoscopes to amplify hard-to-hear sounds produced deep within the body, but these devices also create static and artifacts that doctors have to learn to ignore. This issue stems from the fact that most significant body sounds occur in the high and low end of the frequency spectrum, which are the exact frequencies that are most susceptible to distortion. In the ’90s, Clive Smith came across a paper claiming that despite the availability of electronic stethoscopes, stethoscope acoustics overall haven’t improved much since the first one was invented in the early 19th century.
After speaking with several experts in the space, Smith had confirmed that stethoscope acoustics still had a lot of room for improvement. Thinklabs Medical has since tested—and rejected—dozens of technologies in their search for a technique to provide true amplification of high and low frequency body sounds. Finally, at the end of this exhaustive search, Smith hit upon the question that would lead the way to innovation: How can one create an electronic stethoscope that would be sensitive to the air pressure changes that occur in the analog stethoscope?
Where Are the Tubes?
The breakthrough came when Smith attempted to create an electronic stethoscope that utilized a powerful magnet. Smith discovered that an incredibly strong electromagnetic field would allow him to record the minute vibrations that occur across modern stethoscope diaphragms. The resulting device has been dubbed the “electromagnetic diaphragm,” and it’s at the heart of Thinklabs Medical’s new stethoscope, the ThinkLabs One.
The Thinklabs One fits in the palm of the hand, and it does away with the tubes that make the traditional stethoscope so recognizable. Instead, the device comes with high-fidelity headphones. The Thinklabs One itself sports an LCD screen on one side and the incredibly powerful diaphragm on the other. The device amplifies quiet body sounds up to 100 times without introducing distracting artifacts.
The Thinklabs One is compatible with Thinklabs Medical’s famous iPhone app, allowing it to upload and store short recordings of body sounds. The device can be charged at any computer via USB. It will retail at $499 and is currently in the final stages of development.