A Superior Alternative to the Stethoscope - Archived Post

The stethoscope is perhaps the most identifiable symbol of a medical doctor, but it might soon become obsolete. A new study has applied a digital, mathematical approach to diagnosing heart problems, and it appears to be more effective in this task than the typical doctor-stethoscope combination.

The stethoscope is a tool that allows a doctor to closely listen to a beating heart, theoretically providing the means to diagnose certain heart problems. Unfortunately, heart problems and irregularities are commonly misdiagnosed, and with the many technological advancements in the medical field, it’s a wonder a more advanced general heart testing system is not currently in place.

Two researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology have recently developed an analytical technique that can digitally listen and diagnose a a larger number of heart problems, and more effectively, than a doctor using a stethoscope. This method utilizes Empirical Mode Decomposition (EMD), which are the sound waves produced by a beating heart. As one of the two principle developers Dr. Samat Ari mentions, the “method breaks down the sounds of each heart cycle into its component parts. This allows them to isolate the sound of interest from background noise, such as the movements of the patient, internal body gurgles, and ambient sounds.”

Specifically, there are 25 “sound qualities and variables” being measured, and the results of these measurements are then analyzed by a computer program. The program consists of a classifying system based on previously established indicators of which heart sounds and movements represent certain heart problems. This takes a lot of the guess work out of the diagnosis.

The method was performed on “more than 100 different recordings of normal heart sounds, sounds from hearts with a variety of valve problems, and different background noises. They found that the EMD system performs more effectively in all cases than conventional electronic, wavelet-based, approaches to heart sound classification [stethoscope being the most widely used].”

While this specific analytical method requires further testing before it can be widely implemented, the study brings to light a troubling issue to somewhat primitive technology being used by most doctors to diagnose heart problems. If this method is not perfect in itself, it should at least lay the foundations for the development of a strong diagnostic technique that would be more comprehensive and would help eliminate doctor error.

Source: Defeat Diabetes Foundation: Ari, Samat. Saha, Goutam. International Journal of Medical Engineering and Informatics press release. July 2008.