Using Phones to Monitor Hearts

Health & Education

In the latest attempt to make mobile phones do literally everything other than phone a person, researchers at King’s College London and Maastricht University in the Netherlands have produced a study which aimed to assess the viability of phones as heart-rate monitors.

The idea behind the research is to make diagnosis of conditions easier by breaking down barriers to entry such as the need for a doctor’s appointment – something we’re very short of here in the UK. In theory, most people now have access to high-quality microphones through their smart phones, so taking an accurate reading should be as easy as holding your phone to your chest – in theory.

Taking the reading

To take heart readings, users need only download the Echoes app, hold their smartphone against their chest, and press record – background noise is filtered out by the app, but quieter environments are preferrable for higher quality readings.

Although the process is relatively simple, factors like a user’s age and the model of the phone were observed to have an impact on the quality of recordings. For instance, people over 60 had lower-quality recordings than those under 60.

The Study

The study was carried out on 1,148 cardiac patients who contributed over 7,500 sound recordings to the database. Of these, 80% of users were able to make “good quality” recordings – “good quality” denoting the recording’s suitability for data processing.

Overall, 75% of all recordings could be processed to obtain other medically relevant data. This is a decent majority that proves the tech is at least semi-viable. The accuracy of this data will be determined with time, but for now it offers a promising look into at-home health services.

At-home health and data

The idea of at-home health has gained a lot of traction since the lockdowns of Covid-19. The ubiquity of mobile devices and internet availability, coupled with the limitations imposed by lockdown measures, logically culminated in the acceleration of development within the mobile-health monitoring and at-home health landscapes.

The benefits of this technology are – in theory at least – manifold. Patients’ wait times are decreased, diagnoses are more efficient, doctors’ schedules become more flexible due to a reduction in patient-facing time, and surgeries are able to better manage capacity and patient screening. On the other side of the coin, however, patients without access to the necessary mobile devices/internet will be excluded entirely from these sorts of procedures, while a decrease in patient-doctor time may not always be a good thing.

The use of the data gathered by this tech is similarly diverse. Its use in a medical setting is no doubt self-evident, but further use in both the research and private sectors provides more use cases for the tech beyond its health-based conception.

Final thoughts

The advent of at-home health-tech is a good example of how hardship often breeds innovation. Had the perfect storm of technical capability not collided with a quarantine-based pandemic, it’s questionable whether there would ever have been the impetus to get ideas like this off this ground.

Now, researchers at King’s College London in the United Kingdom and Maastricht University in the Netherlands have conducted a study to investigate the feasibility of using a smartphone as a stethoscope and to assess the potential factors that influence the quality of heart sound recordings.

By Rebecca Garland on 04/11/2022