Startup's stethoscope adapter gets to the heart of the matter

Doctors can add the device to their stethoscopes and send heartbeat data to their phones

Seeing the latest smartphone makes some people's hearts beat faster. Now there's an app that can hear them.

The app, from a company called Eko Devices, works with a device that attaches to a standard analog stethoscope. Via the Bluetooth Low Energy protocol, the Eko adapter sends the audio from the stethoscope to the doctor's phone or tablet for recording, viewing, analysis and sharing. The six-person company demonstrated its product at the Demo Enterprise conference in San Francisco Thursday.

Digitizing the heart and lung sounds that a stethoscope picks up allows doctors to view them as waveforms, giving them another tool to detect potential ailments. Digital stethoscopes have been on the market for years, but Eko's accessory allows doctors who prefer traditional analog devices to bring them into the digital age.

The Eko pairs automatically with the doctor's smartphone and digitizes the audio signals that the stethoscope picks up, streaming them to the phone for use in the Eko app. With the app, the doctor can view the waveforms from the stethoscope in real time, record a few seconds and play it back slow or fast, and send the captured data out for analysis.

"Their goal is to listen to that heart and determine if there's anything that warrants further investigation," said Eko founder and CEO Connor Landgraf. If something sounds wrong, the doctor can forward the sounds and waveforms to another physician for a virtual second opinion or send it to Eko's data center, where the company uses algorithms to detect specific irregularities such as heart murmurs.

After Eko uses its algorithms and database to analyze the data, it sends a report back to the doctor. Only the physician can make a diagnosis, but Eko's report is "clinical decision support" to help the doctor come to a conclusion, Landgraf said.

The app encrypts the audio data both while it resides on the phone and when it's being transmitted, meeting the requirements of U.S. HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) regulations, according to Landgraf. Each user of the app has to have their own login and password, which allows for tracking of who's seen the information, and there are backups in case the primary data is lost, also in line with HIPAA, he said.

With an expected price around US$100 to $150, an Eko may be less expensive than a typical digital stethoscope, which can cost $200 or more. But according to Landgraf, there's another reason some doctors would rather add the company's adapter to the traditional analog version: It still looks like a stethoscope. Having that recognizable instrument around their necks makes doctors look like doctors.

"No one wants to be the doctor wearing the weird-looking stethoscope," Landgraf said.

One challenge for Eko is that there's no prescribed format for audio files in standard medical records systems. The company has incorporated its audio into a few medical records systems that allow for file storage, Landgraf said. It's exploring ways to store the information in the format most commonly used for exporting and sharing all types of medical data, called HL7, he said. Even without audio support, Eko can supply an analysis and an image of the waveforms.

The Eko team is made up mostly of biomedical engineers and computer scientists, though it has a board of advisers with several doctors. The company started developing its product a little more than a year ago, when Landgraf was still an undergraduate biomedical engineering student at the University of California, Berkeley. He's now earning a master's degree. The company has offices about a block away from the campus.

The company has written versions of the app for the iPhone and iPad and expects to have an Android version within about six months, Landgraf said. It has submitted the product to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and expects to have it approved and on the market by September. Presumably, Landgraf has his heart set on it.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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