Whether diagnosing a heart defect in a newborn or discovering a life-threatening rumble in a elderly man’s abdomen, I think all clinicians can relate to that surge of excitement we feel when we discover something that we could use to help a patient. But as I’ve progressed through my training, I’ve also observed how these findings inevitably lead to confirmatory tests – echocardiograms, ultrasounds, and so on. Our clinical acumen is simply not good enough. I’ve often heard the argument that, for this reason, the stethoscope is an outdated tool. Perhaps it almost was. Companies like Thinklabs, however, feel very differently and are reinventing the stethoscope to meet the needs of modern medicine. Meet Thinklabs’ ds32a digital stethoscope with the Stethoscope Medical App for the iPhone. Together, they not only improve the clinician’s ability to hear sounds, but also to review and share the audio and waveforms – all on the iPhone.

vert-anim Thinklab’s stethoscope/iPhone app combination certainly isn’t the first recent leap forward for the stethoscope. We’ve talked before about 3M’s digital stethoscope with Zargis Cardioscan software. The 3M/Zargis package pairs a cutting edge stethoscope with ground-breaking analytics. Having had the opportunity to use digital stethoscopes before, I can attest to the fact these devices vastly improve on our ability to hear heart sounds. On top of that, the audio is transmitted via Bluetooth to a computer running Cardioscan, which helps analyze the waveform and make a diagnosis. In its “Innovation of the Year” article, Popular Science estimates that this technology could save nearly $10 billion/year in unnecessary tests (I suspect this is a huge overstatement, but the cost-saving opportunities are real). Thinklabs has upped the ante by adding portability, a proven user interface, and adaptability to the stethoscope with its digital stethoscope/iPhone medical app combination. As the manual describes, the stethoscope pairs with the iPhone via an adapter cable. The software on the iPhone then allows viewing of the waveform and frequency data, with editing functionality including trimming the audio and annotation. It does not, however, allow for the kind of analysis that Cardioscan performs.

And therein lies perhaps one of the biggest challenges for Thinklabs. I suspect their software will exhibit all the things we’ve come to love about many iPhone apps, generally centering on an easy and fun user interface. And taken alone, the ability to record, review, transmit heart sounds from the bedside is revolutionary. Thinklabs, however, isn’t the only manufacturer that thinks so. Zargis was approved all way back in October, 2009 as an iPhone medical app developer, and their press release certainly suggests that they view the mobile platform as an enormous opportunity. So while Thinklabs’ stethoscope/iPhone medical app pair are bound to be impressive, I suspect that the behemoths of 3M and Zargis are not far behind – and are likely to bring their analytic software to a mobile platform.

The stethoscope has been a clinician’s best friend since the advent of modern medicine in the 19th century, with the first stethoscope being introduced in 1816 by Rene Laennec in Paris. The stethoscope reached its current form, more or less, in the 1960’s, courtesy of Dr. David Littmann. Based on what we know so far, Thinklabs is certainly among the innovators ushering in the next iteration of the stethoscope.