Digital stethoscopes facilitate social distancing while allowing precise collection of information and faster collaboration. 

Essential to diagnosis, stethoscopes are one of the most widely used tools in hospitals and clinics. But the new challenges imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic have called for the optimisation of the traditional model. 

Noisy ventilators, protective headwear and everyday hospital noises can affect the quality of the information collected through this essential tool. While the lack of distance it imposes between patients and doctors, poses risks for both parties.

The fear of transmitting COVID to non COVID patients through the tool is widespread among doctors. Dr. Shanon T. Peter, a hospitalist at the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, explains how she has avoided using traditional stethoscopes with COVID patients. 

 In addition to being a safer choice in an era of social distancing, digital stethoscopes can collect and transmit the same readings as their analog counterparts while providing high quality sound with adjustable volume. They also facilitate collaboration as the digital sound can be archived in the patient’s medical record or sent instantly to another clinician for a second opinion.

An Invaluable Tool In High-Risk Situations

The Ebola crisis in 2014 first highlighted the protective benefits of digital stethoscopes through their use by medical teams in Africa, said Clive Smith, CEO of Thinklabs Medical, a manufacturer of the technology.

The stethoscope, which is conveniently sized, is placed on the patient before transmitting the sound to any device supported by a USB cord or optional bluetooth transmitter. The essential tool can be connected to telemedicine or videoconferencing platforms, while an associated Thinklabs application generates waveforms for visual aid.

Following the first reported cases of Ebola in the United States, healthcare professionals at Nebraska Medecine – the only healthcare system with a federal quarantine unit in the county, with a 10-bed biocontainment unit and a 20-bed quarantine unit – only confirmed the benefits of the optimised stethoscope with Kate Boulter, the nurse manager of the biocontainment unit, saying , “They’re extremely valuable and a great way to prevent having to send people into the room of a patient who has a highly hazardous infectious disease,”. Boulter, who uses the Thinklabs One and other models when exposed to high-risk patients, further explains that the use of the digital stethoscope supports a multi-step safety diagnosis: staff already in a high-risk patient’s room place the optimised tool on that individual and an interdisciplinary team elsewhere can receive the sounds and assist in clinical decision-making.

This technology proved its worth again in February 2020, in the wake of the massive COVID-19 outbreak on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which recorded more than 700 cases. Fifteen American passengers stranded aboard the ship were flown to biocontainment and quarantine units in Nebraska, where digital stethoscopes were once again used to listen to patients’ lungs while providing the safety and accuracy necessary to properly assess and contain the highly transmissible virus. Indeed, the technological tool “incorporates safer collaboration and intervention,” explains Shahnaz Benner, clinical programme coordinator of the biocontainment unit.

Loud And Clear Wherever You Are

Within the framework of social distancing and in an effort to contain hospital overcrowding, digital stethoscopes are already improving routine care.  St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is one of the first facilities to deploy this technology to enable its patients to provide vital information directly from their homes. In an effort to minimize physical visits, families receive an iPad with a digital stethoscope add-on that allows a parent or guardian to take and transfer readings during a telehealth visit. According to Nina Antoniotti, the organisation’s Director of Interoperability and Patient Engagement, the user-friendly approach has been essentially smooth: “They connect the stethoscope, turn it on and hold it in the appropriate places”, with a minimal amount of guidance, she explains.

The ease of use and accuracy of the health tool is paramount to Peter, who uses the device in a sealable plastic bag that is changed after each visit. As the audio transmission is via wireless Apple AirPods, he emphasises the usefulness of being able to collect the data he is accustomed to collecting during his daily rounds while maintaining safe practices.

Recently, while listening to the heart of a COVID-19 patient, Peter detected an irregular heartbeat that eventually led to a diagnosis of atrial fibrillation. “It really changed the management of this patient because I was able to put him on anticoagulants and long-term medication to control the heartbeat, both of which can be really helpful in the long term,” he says. ”

Thinking of the potential that this innovative tool brings to healthcare, Smith contemplates the use of AI to support remote monitoring of patients through automated analysis. For example, such an algorithm could compare new readings with a patient’s archived audio files to more efficiently assess a patient’s progress.