The common stethoscope’s recognizable design has remained largely unchanged for decades for good reason—there’s really not much to improve at this point. When it comes to listening in on a patient’s internal soundtrack, the standard, adjustable bell connected via short rubber tubing to binaural earpieces is perfectly suited for helping assess respiratory and cardiac health.
Of course, a stethoscope can only relay vitals in person based on its specific placements; long term monitoring often requires extended clinical stays alongside bulky, wired devices. To solve these problems, a team of medical experts, researchers, and engineers at Northwestern University set out to design a new wearable capable of providing highly detailed, continuous, real-time information regardless of a patient’s environment. After painlessly adhering to specific areas of the chest, the resulting soft devices not only accomplish these goals, but already show immense promise for both adults, as well as premature babies often dealing with gastrointestinal complications and apneas.
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“Currently, there are no existing methods for continuously monitoring and spatially mapping body sounds at home or in hospital settings,” John Rogers, a bioelectronics expert who oversaw the new tool’s design and development, said in a recent Northwestern University profile.
As detailed in a new study published in Nature Medicine, Rogers and fellow researchers placed a miniature battery, electronics, Bluetooth relay, flash memory drive, and two microphones within a 40mm long, 20mm wide, and 8 mm thick soft silicone casing—roughly the size of a stick of gum. Each microphone is positioned in opposing directions, into and outside the patient, to filter exterior ambient noises from a wearer’s bodily sounds. The team notes this is particularly helpful in situations such as lung monitoring, since the organ is simply too quiet when compared to noisy hospital surroundings.
Ankit Bharat, a thoracic surgeon who oversaw adult subject clinical device trials, describes it pretty succinctly in Northwestern’s November 16 announcement:
“Simply put, it’s like up to 13 highly trained doctors listening to different regions of the lungs simultaneously with their stethoscopes, and their minds are synced to create a continuous and a dynamic assessment of the lung health that is translated into a movie on a real-life computer screen.”
[Related: Almost everyone in the world breathes unhealthy air.]
Aside from adult lung and gastrointestinal health monitoring, the tiny wearables show incredible promise for infants—particularly those born with potential medical issues. Babies’ respiratory systems only fully mature during the third trimester of pregnancy, meaning many apnea and breathing disorders often accompany premature deliveries. Given these infants’ physical size, traditional stethoscopes are both impractical and too large to provide accurate, prolonged monitoring. And even for healthy delivered children, breathing and gastrointestinal issues are major concerns during their first five years. The team’s new wearables, however, account for these issues by providing a new, size-appropriate tool.
Every human body is host to a wide array of acoustic and tonal signatures. Once the particular sounds are documented, the team hopes their wearable will make it much easier to pick out irregularities stemming from serious, overlooked health issues. If detected early enough, such discoveries could potentially save countless lives.