Wearable stethoscope can continuously monitor patients in real time
Whether you've booked a health check up or recovering from an illness, your medical professional will likely make use of a stethoscope to hear what's going on inside the body. But doctors are busy people and can't keep a constant ear on a patient's chest. That's where wearables developed by researchers at Northwestern University could come in.
The aim of the study was to design and develop a small wireless device that could be placed directly on the skin on any region of the body to continuously monitor a patient's heart beat, airflow in and out of lungs, listen for sounds as food or fluid (or gas) moves through the gut or even look for swallowing issues – "without encumbrances associated with rigid, wired, bulky technology."
Each wearable is about the size of a Band-Aid, albeit somewhat chunkier, at 40 mm in length, 20 mm wide and 8 mm thick (1.57 x 0.78 x 0.3 in). It's home to a pair of high-performance microphones, flash memory, a small battery and electronics with Bluetooth connectivity.
One of the mics faces in towards the body to capture what's going on inside while another faces out so that external sounds can algorithmically removed from the sonic picture, while also offering a window into the kind of environment the patient is in – which can be an important factor when dealing with premature babies.
"Irrespective of device location, the continuous recording of the sound environment provides objective data on the noise levels to which babies are exposed," explained Dr. Wissam Shalish, a neonatologist at the Montreal Children’s Hospital and co-first author of the paper. "It also offers immediate opportunities to address any sources of stressful or potentially compromising auditory stimuli."
The Northwestern researchers had neonatal intensive care and post-surgery adults in mind when developing the devices, and have tested them on 15 premature babies with breathing or intestinal issues as well 55 adults, and found that they performed with "clinical-grade accuracy."
Devices placed at the base of the throat of NICU babies, for example, registered airflow and chest movements, which could allow for the detection and classification of apnea subtypes. And babies with sensors placed at four locations across the abdomen could be monitored for digestion issues.
For the tests on adults, the researchers attached the wireless wearables to 35 people suffering from chronic lung diseases plus 20 healthy adults, and were able to analyze a single breath from different regions of each host simultaneously.
"A key advantage of this device is to be able to simultaneously listen and compare different regions of the lungs," said Dr, Ankit Bharat, a thoracic surgeon at Northwestern Medicine. "Simply put, it’s like up to 13 highly trained doctors listening to different regions of the lungs simultaneously with their stethoscopes, and their minds are synced to create a continuous and a dynamic assessment of the lung health that is translated into a movie on a real-life computer screen."
It's likely too early for talk of the wearables going into production, but the promising study has been published in the journal Nature Medicine. You can hear an example of the noise-canceling prowess of the wearables in the video below.
Source: Northwestern University