Stethee reinvents the stethoscope to build a cardiac data cloud

An FDA-approved digital stethoscope opens the door to better diagnoses by an increasing number of healthcare providers, supplying artificial intelligence with data about the world's heartbeats.

Video: Stethee shows off digital stethoscope

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In my last column, I wrote about two devices -- one wearable -- that are improving consumers' ability to monitor their intake of food and medication. While currently most of the health tracking gadgets in the marketplace have been sold directly to consumers, there are significant benefits to improving the tools used by physicians.

To address this, Dr. Nayyar Hussain, who has a background spanning sports medicine and engineering, has worked with health and technology experts from Texas A&M University, MIT and the Mayo Clinic to create a product that challenges what he calls unmotivated monopolistic medical device companies.

Targeting a tool synonymous with doctors, Stethee is a digital stethoscope that sends amplified heartbeat sounds to a companion app in real time. It houses a dual-core ARM processor, battery, Bluetooth radio and other cell phone-like components. Unlike many health-related consumer devices, Stethee has been approved by the FDA, a process that the company says took more than two years.

stethee-pro-clinic-3.jpg

Stethee Pro Clinic 3

Looking more like a customer service bell than a traditional stethoscope bell-and-diaphragm combination, Stethee eschews the tubing often resting around the neck for a belt clip. Using it requires only pressing the device against the chest of the patient for 20 seconds as lights around its perimeter indicate that it is picking up an audio signal.

But the Stethee device is more than just a fancy digital microphone. In addition to making a heartbeat easier to hear for humans, Stethee's companion app can automatically detect potential deviations. That is a feature that is bound to improve as the company plans to use a deep-learning neural network to create a global system of cardiac intelligence that could be the product's big societal win. It is also building its own HIPAA-compliant portal that can integrate with more general patient portals that is available via subscription.

On Amazon.com, stethoscopes sell from about $10 to under $200 although many are in the $30 to $80 range. In contrast, Stethee will cost $499. The product comes in three versions -- for physicians, veterinarians, and educational use. The version optimized for animals is already being used to monitor the health of koalas in Dr. Hussain's home country of Australia.

The company says it sees potential for a consumer version down the road that could complement existing consumer blood pressure monitors. It also sees other applications for its core audio capture technology such as capturing meetings.

While its price may be steep for a tool used by virtually every general practitioner, Stethee maintains that its ease of use will open doors for increasingly less experienced practitioners to catch potential heart problems. Furthermore, its smartphone-aided ability to log and transmit heartbeat recordings could prove useful in cases where a more experienced but remote specialist needs to be consulted. Korea Telecom has signed on to test the device in developing countries.

With much focus on mixed reality and robotics promising to change the medical profession as we know it, Stethee targets a tool that has proven its value over two centuries and helps augment what is often a first interaction between doctor and patient. Many health professionals will easily be able to rationalize its price premium. Beyond that, it should slip transparently into many health-monitoring settings.

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