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High-tech stethoscopes can transmit patient data

June 29, 2010 5:43:43 PM PDT
A new generation of stethoscopes that doctors use to listen to patients' heart and lungs is now a much more powerful tool. It has gone high-tech.

What is different about the stethoscope is that it is part of a system that marries one of the most common instruments in medicine with powerful diagnostic software.

Dr. Ian Tong is an internist, but the specialized stethoscope he wears offers his patients the kind of expertise they would normally get from a cardiologist.

"Actually, some of this new technology can do analysis or diagnosis," he says.

The technology is built right into his stethoscope. Known as the Littmann, it records the patient's heart beat while the exam is going on then transmits the information to a computer via wireless connection.

The heart beat is stored as both an audio file and a waveform graph. Special software is able to analyze the data including things like the timing and intensity of heart murmurs.

"It's very difficult for primary care physicians sometimes to determine which cardiac murmurs actually need be reviewed by cardiography and be sent to a cardiologist. And, this software actually has the ability to screen those out," Tong explains.

The portable expertise is especially valuable for Tong, who performs many of his checkups not at the VA where he is based but in a mobile exam clinic, often driving miles to reach veterans in rural areas.

"So, one of the things we do is we sent out some of our team members to visit these veterans," he says.

An interactive screen also allows medical assistants to perform the exams by walking them through the steps.

"Recording protocol complete. Press N button to analyze," the machine says.

The information can also be emailed to cardiac specialists at another location. Mike Alexander is with 3M, which manufacturers the Littmann. The company recently sent the device to rescue teams in Haiti.

"They were able to record the heart and lung sounds of a person who's trapped, bring it back out to someone who's more versed," he explained.

The company plans to continue testing the device both in the hospital and remote locations like Tong's mobile medical unit.

The stethoscope also allows doctors and paramedics to amplify the sound up to 24 times which is especially valuable in situations where it may be difficult to detect a heartbeat.


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