This Digital Stethoscope Lets Doctors Virtually Diagnose Patients In Haiti

How Eko's device is helping nonprofits help patients.

Oct 23 2015, 5:18pm

Image: Eko

In villages across Haiti, children combat hunger by mixing dirt and water into a "dirt cake" to eat when their stomachs grumble.

It's a country where half of children under five are malnourished and 59 percent live below the national poverty line, according to The World Bank. As you'd expect, Haiti's medical system is not equipped to provide even basic healthcare to much of the population, especially after the devastating earthquake in 2010.

"There are so many people who haven't had any medical care since the earthquake, and some since before that," said Christine Robson Hashim, an American who has made dozens of trips to Haiti to provide medical aid. "Parents are required to pay for their kids to go to school, which is 80 percent of the money they make, so there's not a lot leftover for food or medical care."

That's why she's excited about a new device that brings the medical expertise of doctors overseas to patients in Haiti, who would otherwise be unable to afford treatment and transportation.

Hashim runs clinical operations for People for Haiti, a non-profit organization formed in 2010 that has made 31 trips to Haiti and treated over 35,000 patients at no cost. Volunteers set up makeshift clinics at churches or schools, carrying thousands of dollars in medical supplies, equipment, and prescription meds with them.

On People for Haiti's most recent trip, Hashim brought along three digital stethoscopes provided by Eko, a medical tech startup out of Berkeley, California. Launched by two recent UC Berkeley grads in 2013, Eko secured FDA clearance for its device in September.

"A practitioner can take vital signs, make a recording, and upload it right there onto the computer."

The Eko Core is a digital adapter that snaps onto any standard stethoscope to amplify and record heartbeats in real time. At $299 for the stethoscope plus the adapter and $199 for just the adapter, the Eko Core is more than double the price of a standard stethoscope, but Hasim believes it's worth it.

The patient's heartbeat is captured and sent to the cloud, in both audio and visual wavelength format, which means physicians can use their smartphones to record and share what they're hearing with other doctors.

Earlier this month, Hashim used the device to diagnose a heart problem in a six-year-old girl with a severely swollen left leg. "I looked at her and knew she had something wrong with her heart," Hashim said. "We put her on the device, made several recordings, and sent them to a consulting cardiologist back in the states, who was actually on a cruise at the time."

The cardiologist evaluated the recordings and confirmed that the girl needed surgery, so People for Haiti arranged for her to be transported to a nearby hospital in Port Au Prince. Now back in the States, Hashim has trained staff on the ground in Haiti how to use the device, so she can receive periodic updates and monitor the girl's recovery from afar.

Image: People for Haiti

"It's really useful as a practitioner when you're consulting with someone else, because if you can hear what's going on, it's virtually like being there," Hashim said.

By allowing cardiologists to diagnose patients in places they'd likely never choose to go, Eko has the potential to significantly improve healthcare in the developing world.

Granted, the diagnosis is only the first step—in many cases, patients probably can't afford to pay for what the doctor orders. Conditions such as rheumatic heart disease, though, which is responsible for 180,000 deaths in developing countries every year, can be treated with a simple course of antibiotics if caught early enough.

"Our goal is to set up a telemedicine site, basically like a kiosk, where people can come in and use the Eko device," Hashim explains. "A practitioner can take vital signs, make a recording, and upload it right there onto the computer."

Eko is currently working toward implementing sites like this around the world, according to co-founder Jason Bellet. The company hopes to one day develop an algorithm that can match heartbeats to conditions.

"People for Haiti was our proof of concept," Bellet said. "If we can replicate this model and tweak it to other countries, and work with other NGOs and cardiologists, this could be phenomenal."

Correction: An earlier version of this story listed Christine Robson Hashim as a doctor; that is incorrect. She is a nurse anesthetist and nurse practitioner.