The traditional stethoscope, commonly seen draped around the necks of health-care providers, could someday be replaced by devices that incorporate smartphone technology.
A group of cardiologists in Florida has developed what they call HeartBuds, a device that plugs into a smartphone and operates with an app.
HeartBuds record internal sounds, like a beating heart, producing a file that can be stored and shared.
It's not the first device of its kind, but the five doctors on the team from Orlando Health have outlined why the technology makes more sense than using traditional or disposable stethoscopes.
They presented their findings at the American Hearth Association's Scientific Sessions that wrapped up in Orlando, Fla., on Wednesday.
Better than disposable stethoscopes: tests
The group compared HeartBuds' sound quality in 50 patients with the sound from a standard stethoscope, a disposable one and a digital one.
They rated their device as comparable in sound quality to the more traditional and electronic models that have the Y-shaped tube that feeds into the doctor's ears.
Results of the study showed that the HeartBuds performed just as well as the more expensive and more commonly used stethoscopes in detecting heart murmurs and carotid bruits, which are sounds in the neck that indicate moderate to severe blockage of the carotid artery.
However, the doctors found that the disposable stethoscope performed worse when it came to detecting heart murmurs and carotid bruits.
"That's very disconcerting," said study author Valerie Danesh. "Many facilities have started using disposable models after several studies, particularly overseas, showed there can be a 30 to 40 per cent potential risk for transmitting harmful bacteria through stethoscopes," she said. "These findings may cause some to reconsider that practice."
"Because the HeartBuds device doesn't have earpieces, we no longer have to worry about that," said Arnold Einhorn, a cardiologist and one of the developers. "This device is much less expensive to produce and offers a safer alternative to both traditional and disposable models without sacrificing sound quality."
The device sells for around $50 US and is being marketed primarily for use by expectant mothers and athletes.