Researchers developed a new medical device to replace the stethoscope
What are the first thoughts that spring to mind when thinking about physicians? Probably white coats and a doctor’s most trusty tool, the stethoscope. Now more than 200 years old, this examination aid remains one of the most important tools of the physician, even though the device itself has hardly developed since the 1960s.
An innovation being developed at Aalto University may change this. With the aid of AI, the novel device analyses numerous bodily functions, produces a probable diagnosis and then proposes most appropriate follow-up examinations to the physician.
Researchers believe the device could replace the stethoscope and enable faster, more accurate diagnoses. It is being developed by the Vital Signs research group.
Everyday hospital life viewed through fresh eyes
Development of the device got started as part of Aalto University’s Biodesign programme, the concept of which originates from Stanford University. The idea is that a multidisciplinary team settles into a hospital environment to observe their needs and then comes up with technological innovations as solutions.
The research group behind Vital Signs participated in the project in 2019, spending four weeks at the HUS Cardiac Unit.
‘Our team consisted of a physician, an engineer and an economist, and the task was to observe the state of affairs at the hospital through outsider eyes and think of ways in which our specific expertise could help solve problems,’ says Alexis Kouros, the physician in charge of the Vital Signs research group.
One thing became clear immediately amidst the daily hustle and bustle of the hospital: the time a physician has to spend with an individual patient is short. In that brief moment, they must perform numerous examinations and measurements, such as listening to the heart and lungs with a stethoscope.
‘The stethoscope is “dumb”, analogue and pretty old-fashioned. Our team aimed to turn it into something smart and network-capable. We wanted to achieve this by making the stethoscope more effective and by automating other routine examinations,’ Kouros recounts.
The device developed by Vital Signs answers several examination needs of physicians simultaneously. Kouros compares the relationship between stethoscopes and the new device to the difference between landline phones and smartphones.
The real beauty of the new concept is, however, that the examination situation still feels familiar from the perspective of doctor and patient alike, it’s largely unchanged, says Kouros.
Enabling remote consultations
The Vital Signs device records lung and heart sounds as an audio file, which is then analysed by AI. In addition, it measures the patient’s body temperature, respiratory rate, oxygen saturation, blood pressure and electrocardiogram. All this is recorded directly in the patient’s digital documents, the physician doesn’t need to dictate a thing.
The system suggests diagnoses utilising the aforementioned observations in addition to, for example, personal medical information on laboratory tests and prescribed medication. The physician listens, compares and can also consult a colleague by forwarding the recording – to, say, a top expert on the other side of the world.
‘Physicians don’t need to perform any data entries or other new work stages to use the device. This is such a progressive change to a physician’s traditional workflow that talk of just an improved stethoscope does our invention a real injustice,’ Kouros says.
The new device is now undergoing clinical testing and some one hundred people have already been examined with it. The goal is to launch it on the most significant European markets by the end of 2023.
‘We have a working prototype and a clear development path. We hope that our device will be in general use within 5–10 years. This would represent the start of a new era in clinical patient examination. Improving the accuracy of diagnosis reduces the need for follow-up examinations, freeing up time for other things.’
From hospital environment to Slush stage
A company is being established around the invention and the team has networked with both investors and medical equipment contract manufacturers at technology events.
At the 2021 Slush gathering, Vital Signs made the top 20 in the pitch competition.
‘Slush was good practise for us, it spurred us into preparing sales pitches and marketing materials. We got a lot of positive feedback and made invaluable contacts.’
The team aims to develop their device in a way that enables its use also in telemedicine. A mobile application, which forwards the examination data gathered by a patient’s device to a physician, is already in use. This provides physicians with valuable information and direct measurement results to complement patient interviews.
Plans for the future include a solar-powered device for use in countries with weak health care systems. This would be useful in, for example, developing countries where pneumonia is the leading cause of death for children under five years old. The device’s algorithm can diagnose pneumonia in its early stages.
Kouros hopes that the device can be made available to physicians at as low a cost as possible – users could, for example, only pay for the analysis it performs.
‘We want the device to be widely used all over the world. This would enable us to collect data, which can in turn help us develop the data-analysing AI further.’
Over the long term, the company would thus become a big data and analysis firm instead of being just a developer of devices.
‘Technical equipment is easy to copy, but collecting data takes time. When this data is eventually coupled with other available sources, such as patient records, examination results, earlier diagnoses and pharmaceutical prescriptions, you gain extremely valuable and useful knowledge. And this can further our ability to predict future symptoms or illnesses.’