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The Steth IO device turns an iPhone into a smart stethoscope, helping doctors detect and diagnose heart problems. (Steth IO Image via YouTube)

The stethoscope is an enduring symbol of medicine, but the long-serving tool isn’t actually as effective as you might think.

One study found that doctors in three countries could only detect abnormal heart sounds using a stethoscope about 20 percent of the time, meaning four out of every five patients with a potential problem went undetected.

Seattle-based startup Steth IO is hoping to give doctors’ detection skills a boost with its smartphone-based stethoscope application. Tuesday it launched its newest feature: an artificial intelligence tool that assists doctors in analyzing heart sounds.

“We want to reduce the number of heart related deaths,” Steth IO CEO Vikram Chalana said in a press release. “The AI app release is a key milestone in our journey to update one of the oldest, most widely used and iconic tools in medicine. We believe that our stethoscope is the most practical way to screen patients for valve disease at scale.”

The Steth IO smartphone case and app turn any iPhone into a visual stethoscope. (Steth IO Photo)

Steth IO’s smartphone attachment and the accompanying app lets doctors listen to, visualize, and record patients’ heart sounds on iPhone devices. A team of Steth IO researchers trained the AI tool using thousands of recordings of patient heart sounds collected by doctors using Steth IO’s technology in the clinic.

The AI tool, which is built on a type of machine learning called a convolution neural network, then “learned” how to tell the difference between normal heart sounds and those with a murmur by analyzing this data.

The team tested the tool by having it analyze other recordings, again of real heart sounds recorded by doctors. They found it was able to accurately recognize abnormal heart sounds 73 percent of the time.

While it is not perfect, the Steth IO researchers point out that the tool’s accuracy is much higher than the roughly 20 percent accuracy of doctors when they use an old-fashioned stethoscope.

But like all healthcare tools, the Steth IO assistant is not designed to make an actual judgment about a patient’s health. Instead, the company says, it is another tool in a physician’s toolbox, letting them get a “second opinion” in real-time.

Steth IO was founded by inventor Suman Mulumudi when he was just 14. He was inspired by his father, cardiologist Mahesh Mulumudi. Both are still at the company, Suman as its chairman and Mahesh as its president and chief marketing officer.

The Steth IO smartphone attachment, which the company launched in April, is currently only available for iPhones. It costs $229 and the accompanying app, which is free, is available in the IOs store. The company is also offering the AI assistant feature free of charge while it is in beta testing.

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