A digital stethoscope isn’t anything new. Stethoscope makers already offer versions that convert the analog sound of a heart beating to a digital audio file, amplify it, and filter out noise. There are even DIY versions.
But Eko Devices thinks today’s technology can do more. Its aim is to collect a digital audio file using a small attachment to a standard stethoscope, send the file via Bluetooth to a smartphone where it becomes an image, then send that image on to an analytics system in the cloud where it can be compared to reference heart traces. Eko is also working with partner companies to make it possible to store the image of the heart sound in a standard digital medical record.
Connor Landgraf, cofounder and CEO, says Eko’s cloud-based system for analyzing recordings of patients' heartbeats is better at detecting heart murmurs than the experienced ears of a veteran doctor.
The founders of Eko Devices, who were part of Stanford's StartX program, showed their gadget and analytics technology at a show-and-tell for potential investors and journalists last week. (StartX is a nonprofit accelerator for Stanford-affiliated entrepreneurs.)
The company still needs to get its system approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But it's not the only company getting ready to market a stethoscope attachment that turns heart sounds into visual images that appear on a mobile device. Rijuven is doing roughly the same thing, has FDA approval, and is taking preorders ($400 for the device, and various fees for cloud usage and specific tests). Sensi, which is already commercially available, is an analysis app that requires a separate electronic stethoscope (not an add-on for a regular stethoscope). Thinklabs makes a digital stethoscope that connects to a phone and provides a library of standard heartbeat visualizations for a doctor to use for comparision. It stands to reason that there are others out there—based on nothing more than the ubiquity of the stethoscope. It's obvious that whoever creates a must-have attachment has a big market and may really advance the practice of medicine.
“The stethoscope is still one of the main instruments for a doctor and almost any other health care provider,” says Akhil Saklecha, managing director of venture capital firm Artiman and an Assistant Professor in Emergency Medicine at Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine. Saklecha, who attended the StartX event last week, said, “A technological upgrade is just a matter of time and maybe these products are it.”
Saklecha thinks that this technology has applications beyond physicians. “There is already a push to decentralize medicine and also to extend the reach of a physician through extenders. Imagine a physician assistant who is in a rural part of India or China or Africa using this technology. The ability to use digitally processed sound and algorithms through the cloud in order to identify pathological conditions can have a huge impact on quality of life.”
And gathering all these heart sounds may advance medicine in another way, Saklecha says. “There is opportunity to use this technology to create a library that can do more than just distinguish between pathological or normal. Imagine knowing the specifics in a particular sound that are associated with critical aortic stenosis that may require surgery versus those that signal more trivial mitral valve prolapse.”
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.