Let's connect the dots for a smarter stethoscope

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The healthcare industry is stirring. In the words of Bob Dylan: “the times they are a changin’”.

It seems that with the advent of new technologies, coupled with a greater need to improve the current healthcare system, the digital health revolution arrived. This great experiment is about to start, but there seems to be a few problems in the way. There are some massive hurdles preventing the widespread adoption of digital health technologies in healthcare. Some examples include slow improvements in health IT, complicated healthcare and provider systems, segregated devices, and limited value proven by digital health companies. This has prevented novel technologies to enter and be tested in the greater healthcare system. This is very true when one looks at the electronic stethoscope, an example of a (possibly) revolutionary healthcare device.

The electronic stethoscope is not a new invention. It has been around for more than 20 years. And it changed nothing.

In that time computer and mobile processing power has skyrocketed, we have migrated to the cloud for storage and computing power and internet connectivity has become ubiquitous in developed nations. So why has the stethoscope been left behind? We were all expecting primary care doctors and nurses to be using electronic stethoscopes by now. Stethoscopes that are linked to the cloud, providing analysis and helpful insights into what the doctor or nurse were hearing. The interesting thing is that this problem is perpetuated by the stethoscope industry itselfironically.

Electronic vs Acoustic

Electronic stethoscopes (or e-steths) are marketed in the same channels as acoustic stethoscopes. They cost between $100 and $200 more with the only clear added benefits being amplification and ambient noise reduction. This is barely enough to convince healthcare workers to even consider buying oneexcluding the early adopters of course. A great analogy is comparing the value chain of the e-steth to that of the smartphone. Imagine having a smartphone with no apps, no chatbots or video calling, games or productivity apps, no fitness trackers or internet connectivity. I don’t think I’ll be spending hundreds of dollars on something that is basically, well, a cordless telephone. And that’s just what it is. To make it a true connected device, changes to the ecosystem are required. We need applications that can glue a stethoscope to the doctor. The value of such a stethoscope has to be unlocked by an ecosystem of med tech, organizations and healthcare providers that believe in digital healthcare and the difference it can make in the current system.

Why can’t we allow doctors to do so much more with electronic stethoscopes?

An obvious issuewhich is similar to the issues faced by many digital health technologiesis that there is something lacking. We need a connected, interoperable ecosystem that is promoting the use of electronic stethoscopes, measuring outcomes, and optimising care provided. There is no connected network where the electronic stethoscope can slot in. At the moment the electronic stethoscope is land-lockedit does not have access to a greater grid of technologies that can release the value that it could provide.

Lets start out by looking at what a smart diagnostic tool the stethoscope can be. Imagine having a point-of-care device that is used by all doctors and nurses on a daily basis. Imagine having your stethoscope be smarter. Imagine a use case where a doctor listens to your heart, lung or bowels. Sounds are recorded at the touch of a button. This is seamlessly integrated onto your EHR. The sound data recorded is instantly analyzed for a range of physiological parameters that can help assist doctors in diagnosing various diseases. It can even make recommendations on possible diagnoses. And this information is displayed on a bedside monitor. Providing actionable insight on the patient’s condition, at your fingertips. Now that sounds like a device that will add value to almost all healthcare professionals worldwide. It is not about replacing the doctor, but by assisting, and seamlessly improving healthcare outcomes, reducing costs and unnecessary referrals. The stethoscope is familiar to almost all physicians and nurses. It is a symbol of healthcare, but the potential of the modern, electronic stethoscope has not been freed.

There is currently no added value to the electronic stethoscope. But imagine a truly smart, connected stethoscope. Now you have the ability to save data. Providing access to EHRs. Now that the data is online, how about adding some intelligence. There’s so much more information locked away in the sounds from the body. Much more than the human ear can hear. Let’s diagnose heart or lung failure. Now that you assist in diagnosing, you are improving the outcome and reducing unnecessary referrals. Imagine adding this system onto existing medical devices and integrating with their current data? What can be discovered when applying machine learning and intelligent diagnostics? Provider groups can optimize processes in their facilities, and payers can reward the outcomes of better health for both the patient and the provider. So what has happened? An open system was created, where data is transferred to all players in the digital health game. And who benefits? Everyone.

So what do we need for the e-steth to start making a difference in healthcare? First we need applications that help glue the doctor to the e-steth. These apps must assist doctors and nurses in their day-to-day activities, and should create a flawless user experience and not interrupt the clinical flowbut enhance it. The added benefits of these apps must be proven with various healthcare platforms that will be able to unlock various solutions, integrate with multiple technologies, and assist in improving patient outcomes. A few of the players that need to be brought to the table include intelligent platforms, application developers, healthcare IT and EHR systems, medical device manufacturers, provider groups and payers. This will ensure that the value of the digital stethoscope is unleashed. It can be thoroughly tested and validated as helping save the system money, and improve various clinical outcomes.

The electronic stethoscope has so much potential. It can enable the collection of sounds from the bodyanother valuable source of health data. And when this data is available, it can be analyzed, optimized, improved and used to provide insights into what we so desperately need: a healthier healthcare system. Let’s start connecting the dots for the electronic stethoscope.


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