In 2015, Wojciech Radomski posted a message on Facebook looking for doctors. He had spent ten years running a software firm based in Poznan, Poland, building IT systems for big companies, but had decided he wanted to do something better for society.
Radomski and his two co-founders created a sponsored post asking for medical professionals to tell them about the problems they were having in their day-to-day practice where an IT company might be able to help.
Through this post, he was contacted by two acoustics researchers from the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan. Honorata Hafke-Dys and Jędrzej Kociński aren’t doctors, but they both had young children who were prone to respiratory infections, and they complained that the only thing they needed to physically go to the GP for was to get the youngters’ chests listened to with a stethoscope. “All the other things can be done remotely,” Radomski says.
Together, the group developed StethoMe, a wireless stethoscope that Radomski hopes will one day become as ubiquitous as the home thermometer. The device, which connects to a smartphone via Bluetooth, uses a sophisticated array of microphones to isolate the sounds from within a patient’s chest from any external audio. “Up to 75 per cent of doctor’s visits are unnecessary,” he says. “And some of those patients go to the doctor healthy and come back sick. Home monitoring can provide tools that do not risk patients’ health.”
StethoMe has focussed its initial efforts on children, for whom respiratory diseases can often progress alarmingly quickly from a cough, to bronchitis, to pneumonia, which kills more than 800,000 under-fives every year. The device automatically detects when it’s been touched to the skin, and an accompanying app guides parents through the diagnostic process, directing them where to press the device on their child’s body to collect data.
An algorithm analyses each recording, listening out for wheezes and fine and coarse “crackles” – the sounds doctors hear on a stethoscope that could be indications of illness. Rather than providing a direct diagnosis (“we don’t want parents to Google their symptoms”), the app alerts the user that an expert consultation may be needed. “If we can detect the exact model of the planes passing above based only on sound, we should be able to model what’s happening in the lungs,” Radomski says. StethoMe’s latest research has found that its algorithm is 39 per cent more accurate than the average GP.
The company, which has 23 employees and has raised €3.5m in funding, is now working towards FDA approval in the United States, and to bring the device to market across Europe. It’s working in collaboration with insurance companies and telemedicine services, which have exploded in popularity during the pandemic. “We have had to find new ways of working which will help children with respiratory disease stay well, while protecting them from the risks of Covid-19 infection,” says Alan Smyth, a professor of child health at the University of Nottingham. “Of course this means we are missing a lot of information we would have in a face-to-face consultation.”
Radomski hopes StethoMe can solve this problem by giving doctors access to another source of information – although Smyth points out there will be an extra cost associated with having one device per patient rather than one simple stethoscope per doctor. Physicians get access to a digital dashboard of patient data, with potential areas of concern that have been identified by the algorithm flagged in red. They can also listen back to the original recording made by the device.
That function has proved particularly useful during the pandemic, where traditional stethoscopes can get tangled up in a physician’s personal protective equipment. Doctors have been able to pair the device with Bluetooth headphones to enable them to listen to a patient’s lungs more easily.
In time, Radomski believes StethoMe could be used to monitor those with milder cases of the disease, or even provide an early warning system through regular check-ups in places such as care homes. “Our dream is to have StethoMe in every home,” he says, “and to save a lot of costs to providers, a lot of unnecessary visits, and a lot of lives.”
Amit Katwala is WIRED’s culture editor. He tweets from @amitkatwala
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