The stethoscope has undergone few changes since its invention in 1816, but a cheap MP3 player may push it into retirement if early research from the University of Alberta proves correct.
Bill Hodgetts, a U of A audiologist, is part of a research team that is exploring the use of a $40, off-the-shelf MP3 player called the iriver T-30, which can be placed directly on a patient’s body. Neil Skjodt, a professor of pulmonary medicine, has been working with Dr. Hodgetts to determine if the music player, which doubles as a recorder, works better than a conventional stethoscope. The research grew out of work on the use of electronic microphones to allow real-time transmission of clinical sounds over a cell phone.
Medical literature reveals that most doctors struggle to differentiate among the half-dozen critical breath and heart sounds used in diagnosis. In the initial study, respiratory specialists-in-training were more successful at recognizing different breath sounds when they listened to MP3 recordings than when they listened using conventional stethoscopes. The MP3 microphone “performed better than any stethoscope that I’ve used,” says Dr. Skjodt, who presented their findings at the European Respiratory Society conference in Stockholm this past fall.
Because the MP3 player allows health workers to transmit clinical sounds over a cell phone, it may benefit remote communities in Canada where medical services are limited. “If a baby is born in the Northwest Territories, it’s probably a nurse practitioner delivering that baby. If the baby isn’t doing well, and the nurse hears a murmur or some abnormal lung sounds, there’s no way to transmit that to the doctor now,” says Dr. Skjodt.
While the MP3 player appears to be superior to the stethoscope, Dr. Hodgetts says more spectral analysis is needed to objectively measure the sound quality. A larger research sample will also help determine “whether or not it really works in all situations.”