The stethoscope gets an mHealth upgrade

From the mHealthNews archive
By Eric Wicklund

It's been said that mHealth technology will someday render the stethoscope obsolete.

One Silicon Valley startup begs to differ.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has just classified the Eko Core digital stethoscope as a Class II medical device, paving the way for UC Berkeley-based Eko Devices to market an updated version of the time-honored doctor's aide.

Company co-founder and chief operating officer Jason Bellet tells mHealth News the Eko Core combines the best of both worlds. It's a tried-and-true stethoscope than can be worn around the neck, but with the push of a button it switches from analog to digital, wirelessly streaming heart sounds via Bluetooth to a HIPAA-compliant smartphone app (available at the Apple App Store) and then directly into the electronic medical record.

Bellet said digital stethoscopes are a two-decades-old concept that had to wait for the technology to catch up. The tipping point came in creating a means of capturing heart sounds in real time and automatically sending that through the cloud to an EHR, without the need to interrupt a clinician's workflow.

The next phase – about which Bellet is particularly excited – is currently being reviewed by the FDA. It's a deep-learning decision support algorithm, called "Shazam for Heartbeats," that would enable clinicians to analyze a patient's heart sounds in real time to detect anomalies that occur in roughly one of every four people.

"The clinical decision support algorithm will be a huge component of this," he said.

Bellet and co-founders Connor Landgraf and Tyler Crouch – all UC Berkeley engineering and business school graduates – launched Eko Devices in 2013 through UC Berkeley's SkyDeck accelerator. The Stanford University Department of Medicine trialed the stethoscope and is now deploying it to residents. Stanford's University StartX Fund contributed to the initial $2.8 million investment in Eko, along with Shazam's co-founders, FOUNDER.org's founder and CEO Michael Baum and John Noonan, former senior advisor to the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services.

"We've started by pairing the oldest and the newest tools in the medical toolkit – the stethoscope and the smartphone," Landgraf, EKO's CEO, said in a press release.

"The stethoscope is an iconic and universal part of the medical practice, a tool which nearly every doctor, nurse and student learns to use," added John Chorba, a cardiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, in the release. "The beauty of the Eko Core is that it captures the heart sounds in a streamlined way that has never been done before, interfacing seamlessly into our traditional exam without requiring any extra effort."

Bellet sees the Eko Core as the perfect bridge from that stately symbol of the medical profession, draped over a doctor's neck, to the mHealth generation. For those doctors who haven't quite jumped onto the mHealth bandwagon, he says, the Eko Core can be used as a traditional stethoscope – and it can switch from one mode to the other instantly, such as when the digital stethoscope's battery runs low.

In digital mode, the Eko Core tracks a patient's heart rate in real time and sends that data to the EMR. Bellet said the company worked with San Francisco-based DRChrono to make the EMR integration seamless, and he expects other EMR providers to enable that function once the Eko Core gains some ground in the market.

For now, Bellet wants to get the Eko Core into the hands of solo and small practice doctors, teaching hospitals and those using mHealth technology to bring healthcare to remote locations and around the world. "Imagine bringing the ears of a Johns Hopkins cardiologist to a small village in Africa or even a remote clinic in Montana," he said.