Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Diagnosing Heart Disease

Innovative UK technology using a revolutionary digital stethoscope will make it easier for GPs to spot the first signs of heart disease. A University of London research team funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has developed a computer-based technology synchronizing the various sounds making up a human heartbeat collected by the new stethoscope.

Like a conventional stethoscope, the new stethoscope captures four sounds one after another. What is exciting is that the new computer-based technology than turns these separate sounds into one combined signal which an existing technique called Independent Component Analysis (ICA) can then process.

The sounds analyzed by ICA are then transferred wirelessly to a laptop or desktop computer in easy-to-understand graphs. These graphs provide a visual representation of the heartbeat and any anomalies. Currently, such anomalies can be missed by doctors who aren’t experts in cardiac care.

With the new system, doctors can compare the visual graphs, produced with normal readings while the patient is there, or save the graphs and study them at a later time. Also, it is easier to obtain a second opinion via the internet from another doctor located miles away.

The new stethoscope called the “DigiScope” is not only suited for GPs to use, but is also ideally suited to be used in outpatient clinics, accident and emergency units, and other hospital departments where doctors are not necessarily cardiac specialists.

The DigiScope is designed to be used by doctors in exactly the same way as they use a conventional stethoscope. The doctor positions the end piece in turn on four different places on the patient’s chest.

Listening to internal sounds within the body via a stethoscope is a hard skill to master since heart sounds are of low frequency and the intervals between events are in the order of milliseconds, requiring the doctor to be able to distinguish between a normal and pathological heart sound.

The digitally enhanced stethoscope can be used to train physicians to improve their basic skills in diagnosing and treating heart conditions or used as a tool for the worldwide screening of specific heart pathologies.

The overall stethoscope development project is an international collaboration led by Portugal’s University of Porto and Centro Hospitalar Alto Ave, Guimaraes and benefiting from additional cooperation from Brazil’s Real Hospital Portugues in Recife.

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