The stethoscope has long been a symbol of medicine, but now the centuries-old device has new competition, with the launch of a smartphone-based intelligent stethoscope invented by a Seattle teen seeking to solve a challenge identified by his cardiologist dad.
Suman Mulumudi was 14 years old when he began working on the device, and 15 years old when his invention was featured on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Four years later, he’s a 19-year-old freshman at Columbia University, and the Steth IO device is making its commercial debut.
The phone case and app turn any iPhone into a smart stethoscope that can hear, record and visualize patients’ heartbeats. The device, which officially launches Tuesday, is available for $199 on Steth IO’s website.
Listening to a patient’s heart “can be really difficult,” explained Mulumudi, the company’s co-founder and chief product officer. “It’s a very artistic task, at least currently, using a regular acoustic stethoscope.”
He was inspired to work on Steth IO after his father, cardiologist Mahesh Mulumudi, told him about the difficulties of hearing and diagnosing heart problems using a standard stethoscope. GeekWire also covered Mulumudi’s early work on the device and featured him on our radio show and podcast.
“One of the challenges is that the sounds are low-frequency and the sounds are quiet, so it’s very easy to get false positives and false negatives. It’s very easy to imagine that you heard something and send a patient for an echocardiogram, which is expensive and time-consuming,” he said this week.
During his research, Mulumudi came across a prototype for an electronic stethoscope developed in the ’80s. The device was wheeled around on a cart and used computers to visualize the patient’s heartbeat sound. Although the device was cumbersome and impractical given the technology of the day, Mulumudi saw potential to update the idea and make it convenient for the modern-day doctor’s office.
“It seemed like a very good way of going about a diagnostic, this idea that you could visualize the sounds to help see what is really difficult to hear,” he said.
In addition to diagnostics, a device that can record and store data on heartbeats could have interesting applications when it comes to telemedicine and using artificial intelligence to understand health, Mulumudi said.
He co-founded the company in 2013 along with his father, who is the company’s president and chief marketing officer; and longtime technologist Craig Rosenberg. Mulumudi recently started his first year as a student at Columbia University. He remains in charge of Steth IO’s product efforts but handed the CEO reins to Vikram Chalana, the chairman and co-founder of SAP data management company Winshuttle, last year.
Steth IO is essentially a phone case that is designed to channel the sounds of a patient’s heartbeat or breathing into a phone’s microphone. The Steth IO app then processes that information and displays the patient’s heartbeat sound in a graph on the phone’s screen.
The idea is to make detecting abnormal heart sounds easier for doctors, and even patients themselves, by taking advantage of technology they already use every day.
“That is going to purely help to improve diagnostic accuracy. That’s a really big deal. That was the basic low-hanging fruit for us,” Mulumudi said.
They are also targeting one of the biggest costs, both in human life and dollars, to the American healthcare system: Heart disease and related problems.
Patients with chronic heart disease often end up in the emergency room when they have an episode, sometimes making several of the expensive and time-consuming trips every year. Mulumudi is hopeful that the data from Steth IO, hand-in-hand with artificial intelligence, could help doctors detect problems before they become emergencies, and help patients stay healthier while decreasing their healthcare costs.
“There’s a huge amount of genuine good that can be done there,” Mulumudi said.
He said physicians who tested the device have found an interesting side effect: It dramatically increases patient engagement. When patients can hear their own heartbeat played back to them or see it on a screen, they take more interest in their heart health, he said.
Mulumudi added that the team has been very careful about disrupting an age-old device that has long been an emblem of doctors.
“The stethoscope has always been the symbol of medicine,” Mulumudi said. He doesn’t intend to change that — he just wants to give it a technological boost.
Steth IO has a core group of eight employees and is based in Bothell, Wash., north of Seattle. Steth IO is currently available for a variety of iPhone models, although the company does not yet have offerings for Android devices.