Peter Bentley – creator of the iPhone stethoscope app
Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian
The stethoscope – medical icon, lifesaver and doctor’s best friend – is disappearing from hospitals across the world as physicians increasingly use their smartphones to monitor patients’ heartbeats.
More than 3 million doctors have downloaded a 59p application – invented by Peter Bentley, a researcher from University College London – which turns an Apple iPhone into a stethoscope.
Last week, Bentley introduced a free version of the app, which is being downloaded by more than 500 users a day. Experts say the software, a major advance in medical technology, has saved lives and enabled doctors in remote areas to access specialist expertise.
“Everybody is very excited about the potential of the adoption of mobile phone technology into the medical workplace, and rightly so,” said Bentley, who initially developed the app “as a fun toy”.
“Smartphones are incredibly powerful devices packed full of sensors, cameras, high-quality microphones with amazing displays,” he said. “They are capable of saving lives, saving money and improving healthcare in a dramatic fashion – and we carry these massively powerful computers in our pockets.”
Bentley’s iStethoscope application is not the only mobile phone programme lightening doctors’ bags and transforming their practices: there are nearly 6,000 applications related to health in the Apple App Store. The uptake has been rapid. In late 2009, two-thirds of doctors and 42% of the public were using smartphones – in effect inexpensive handheld computers – for personal and professional reasons. More than 80% of doctors said they expected to own a smartphone by 2012.
The trend looks likely to gain pace as younger doctors enter the workplace. Some medical schools issue students with smartphones. In America, Georgetown University, the University of Louisville and Ohio State University are among those requiring undergraduates to use one.
However, experts say they are being prevented from exploiting the technology’s opportunities. Bentley says that he is unable to launch a new range of applications because of out-of-date regulations.
“It’s much easier to develop technology than it is to get permission to use it,” he said. “I could create a mobile ultrasound scanner and an application to measure the oxygen content in blood, but the regulations stop me. We’re not allowed to turn the phone itself into a medical device, and what that precisely means is currently a grey area in terms of regulation. That’s the only reason we’re not seeing a flood of these devices yet.”
Bravo. Maybe it’s time for non-medical geeks to join the medical types in their efforts to nudge the Hippocratic Establishment into the digital age?
It ain’t ever easy. Progress in and of itself isn’t any more a good reason for medical infrastructure to update than it appears to be for most governments, politicians and pundits. Saving lives, easing costs, aiding the pursuit of a healthful life are all suspicious motives.