Jan 04 2021

Digital Stethoscopes Deliver Heightened Value for Pandemic Care

Digital stethoscopes help clinicians keep their distance while supporting vital information collection and collaboration.

Stethoscopes are a common sight in hospitals and clinics, but the essential tools present new challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

A patient may be connected to a noisy ventilator, or a clinician’s protective headwear could muffle the incoming sounds from a patient’s heart or lungs. A traditional model also requires a user and recipient to be in close range, presenting risks for both sides.

Digital stethoscopes, which can collect and transmit the same readings as their analog counterparts, help complete the vital task in a time of social distancing. 

“I have avoided using traditional stethoscopes with COVID patients because no matter how hard you try to clean them, there’s the lingering fear that you might be the one transmitting their COVID to a non-COVID patient,” says Dr. Shanon T. Peter, a hospitalist at the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System

Moreover, the smart tools deliver high-quality sound with adjustable volume. Audio can be archived in a patient’s health record or sent to another clinician for a second opinion.

‘Extremely Valuable’ Tool in High-Risk Settings

The protective benefits of digital stethoscopes became more evident in 2014 during the Ebola crisis, when the tools were sent to medical teams in Africa, says Clive Smith, CEO of Thinklabs Medical, a manufacturer of the technology.

As the palm-size stethoscope rests on a patient, it transmits sound to a smartphone, computer or loudspeaker using a USB cord or an optional Bluetooth transmitter. The stethoscope can connect to telemedicine or videoconferencing platforms, and an accompanying Thinklabs app may be used to generate waveforms for a visual aid. 

Digital stethoscopes were critical in caring for U.S. citizens with the Ebola virus who were evacuated from Africa to Nebraska Medicine. The Omaha, Neb.-based healthcare system operates a 10-bed biocontainment unit and a 20-bed quarantine unit, the only federal quarantine unit in the country.

“They’re extremely valuable and a great way to prevent having to send people into the room of a patient who has a highly hazardous infectious disease,” says Kate Boulter, nurse manager of the biocontainment unit, which uses the Thinklabs One digital stethoscope and other models. 

Staff already in a high-risk patient’s room may place a digital stethoscope on that individual, Boulter notes, and an interdisciplinary team located elsewhere can receive the sounds and assist with clinical decisions.

digital stethoscope

That setup proved its value again in February 2020 after 15 American passengers stranded aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship — the site of a massive COVID-19 outbreak tallying more than 700 cases — were sent to the biocontainment and quarantine units in Nebraska. 

Digital stethoscopes were used to listen to the lungs of those patients while supporting safety and efficiency for care teams.

“It incorporates safer collaboration and intervention,” says Shahnaz Benner, a clinical program coordinator with the biocontainment unit.

Loud and Clear Audio from Anywhere

Digital stethoscopes also can enable more routine care. The technology has been deployed to help St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital patients provide vital information from their homes. Families are given an iPad device with a digital stethoscope attachment that allows a parent or guardian to take and transmit readings during a telehealth visit. 

“They connect the stethoscope, turn it on and hold it in the appropriate places,” says Nina Antoniotti, the organization’s director of interoperability and patient engagement, noting that the user-friendly approach has been mostly smooth. 

“It's sometimes just a small correction — telling them ‘a little bit lower, a little bit further to the left or right.’”

READ MORE: How remote patient monitoring is aiding the fight against COVID-19.

The ease and precision of the device are key for Peter, who takes patient readings using a Thinklabs digital stethoscope enclosed in a sealable plastic bag that is changed after each visit (the audio is transmitted via wireless Apple AirPods). 

“It’s been very helpful to know that I’m still able to get the data I’m used to collecting on my daily rounds from listening to patient's hearts and lungs,” Peter says. 

Recently, while listening to the heart of a COVID-19 patient, Peter detected an irregular heartbeat that ultimately led to a diagnosis of atrial fibrillation. “It really changed the management of that patient because I was able to get them on long-term blood thinners and medication to control the heart rate, both of which can be really helpful in the long run,” he says. 

Looking ahead, Smith envisions digital stethoscopes using artificial intelligence to support remote patient monitoring via automated analysis. An AI algorithm, for example, could compare a new reading with a patient’s existing audio files to assess their progress.