Breakthrough A.I.-powered stethoscope diagnoses pneumonia like a robot doctor

johns hopkins smart stethoscope ai sonavi labs
Sonavi Labs

Pneumonia, an acute respiratory condition which affects the lungs, kills millions of people around the world each year. This includes 16 percent of all children who die under the age of five. It’s particularly devastating in parts of the world without the necessary trained doctors and required medical equipment, such as X-ray machines, to treat it effectively. Could reinventing the stethoscope help?

Researchers from Johns Hopkins University think so. Spinning off to form the startup Sonavi Labs, they have developed an updated version of this core piece of medical equipment which has remained largely unchanged since the 1800s, boasting some smart, cutting-edge additions. This includes smart noise-filtering technology for enhancing the sound quality of chest readings. Perhaps even more importantly, the device uses A.I. technology to help automatically screen for pneumonia by listening for particular types of breathing on the part of patients. As a result, the stethoscope itself can help provide diagnoses.

“Sonavi Labs is now producing a digital stethoscope with three major differences that distinguish our product from everything else on the market. Our digital stethoscope is less sensitive to precise placement on the body, it incorporates active noise control so that it can work in almost any environment, and it is able to detect abnormal lung sounds,” James West, a research professor of electrical, computer and mechanical engineering at Johns Hopkins, told Digital Trends. “It is a smart system capable of identifying symptoms of pneumonia and other respiratory infections independent of a medically trained ear.”

The project is based on previous research from Johns Hopkins, showing just how crucial lung sounds can be in diagnosing pneumonia. The stethoscope builds on this foundational research, by incorporating an onboard microprocessor and algorithms, capable of doing things like erasing the distracting sound of the heartbeat when a doctor is trying to listen to a patient’s lungs. It can also use machine-learning technology to distinguish between people with pneumonia and those without — with an accuracy level reported at 87 percent. Sonavi is currently getting ready to launch two digital stethoscopes, the Feelix and FeelixPro, early this year.

“We are currently preparing the device for regulatory testing and building partnerships with a variety of hospital systems and insurance companies,” Ellington West, CEO of Sonavi Labs, told Digital Trends. “Additionally, we are developing a version of the device for at home users to help manage chronic conditions and allow physicians to remotely monitor patients. Our goals are to save lives, to enable earlier detection of respiratory challenges, to reduce the number of emergency room visits and hospital admissions, and to improve the workflow of hospitals while giving patients the ability to engage with their providers from the comforts of their home.”

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