New Soft, Wearable Stethoscope May Make It Easier to Detect COPD

Marisa Wexler, MS avatar

by Marisa Wexler, MS |

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Scientists have developed a soft, wearable stethoscope that could make it easier to detect lung abnormalities that are indicative of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

The new device was described in a study, “Fully portable continuous real-time auscultation with a soft wearable stethoscope designed for automated disease diagnosis,” published in the journal Science Advances.

The technical term for when a clinician listens to the sounds of a person’s heart and lungs is called auscultation. This simple procedure is often the first-line test for detecting lung abnormalities, and is especially important in settings where healthcare resources are limited.

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“Auscultation has been the most basic and vital diagnostic method in the medical field because it is noninvasive, fast, informative, and inexpensive,” the researchers wrote.

Despite its usefulness, conventional auscultation has some drawbacks. Most critically, interpreting the sounds is usually dependent on the expertise of the clinician listening, and can be complicated by other sounds — for example, the stethoscope moving against a person’s skin, or the sound of rustling clothing. Additionally, since most stethoscopes are not capable of recording sounds, these findings are not easily shareable between healthcare professionals.

Now, a team of scientists in the U.S. and Korea collaborated to create a wearable stethoscope that could perform automated auscultation.

The device, dubbed a soft wearable stethoscope, or SWS, is only a few inches long, and looks a bit like an adhesive bandage attached to a phone camera. One side of the soft device has a silicone-gel backing that allows it to stick to the skin. It is meant to be attached to the chest, just over the heart.

The wearable stethoscope’s battery can hold a charge for up to 10 hours, and it houses a tiny microphone to pick up chest sounds. Researchers noted that, since there are no air gaps between the device and the person’s skin, there is less chance for the device to pick up noises from the patient moving about.

In a series of proof-of-concept tests, researchers demonstrated that the SWS could accurately detect lung and heart noises while a person wearing the device was performing everyday activities, like walking around or talking.

“The soft device demonstrates a precise detection of high-quality cardiopulmonary sounds even with the subject’s different actions,” the researchers wrote.

The sounds recorded from the device are sent via Bluetooth to a computer for processing. A machine-learning algorithm, also created by the researchers, then performs automated analyses of the recordings. Simplistically, this involved “feeding” many recordings to a computer, along with certain mathematical rules, and then allowing the computer to generate algorithms to detect abnormalities.

In a series of proof-of-concept tests, researchers illustrated that this setup could detect four types of abnormal lung sounds — crackle, wheeze, stridor (a high-pitched noise), and rhonchi (low-pitched wheezes or crackling sounds) — with an accuracy of nearly 95%.

“Deep learning integration with the SWS demonstrates a successful application for a clinical study where the soft stethoscope is used for continuous, wireless auscultation with multiple patients,” the team concluded.