How a London physician came up with the idea for a 3D printed stethoscope

In parts of the world with limited access to medical supplies, stethoscopes are both valuable and difficult to come by. That's why a 3D printed stethoscope will make a big difference, said Dr. Tarek Loubani.

Dr. Tarek Loubani says the stethoscope is just the beginning for 3D printed medical devices

Dr. Tarek Loubani said the 3D printed stethoscope will make a big difference for physicians in parts of the world with restricted access to medical equipment. (Submitted)

The simple stethoscope is one of the most valuable pieces of medical equipment for doctors in war zones or low-income countries, according to London physician Dr. Tarek Loubani.

In areas that don't have access to CT scanners or ultrasounds, doctors rely on their stethoscopes to diagnose potentially life-threatening chest conditions and traumas, he said.

The problem is that in these areas, stethoscopes can also be very difficult to come by.

"In a place like the Gaza strip, Littmann's (cardiology) stethoscope—the gold standard kind that you see around your doctor's neck—is literally unavailable," he said. 

"You cannot get it for any amount of money"

That's why Loubani and a team of researchers working between Western University, Gaza and Germany have developed a 3D printed stethoscope.

As of yesterday, the product has been clinically validated and is ready for mass deployment—something that will make a big difference for doctors and patients around the world, Loubani said. 

"Its value isn't just making [the stethoscope] less expensive or even available. It also introduces pretty much the only diagnostic device for lots of these doctors in low and middle-income countries," he said. 

How it works

The 3D printed stethoscope uses the same widely-available plastic that's used in Lego and garden chairs. (Submitted)

The stethoscope is printed using free, open-source software, which means that anyone can access it. The printing process takes less than three hours, and uses a common plastic that's also used for Lego and garden chairs. 

The 3-D printed stethoscope costs under $3, which makes it about a hundred times less expensive than Loubani's own $300 standard stethoscope. 

That number is especially important for Loubani. He remembers one instance in Gaza when he and his fellow doctors only had one stethoscope between them, and around 100 patients to treat.

"For the cost of that one stethoscope I had with me, we can build now 100 of these stethoscopes these 3D printed ones," he said.

Loubani got the idea for the project from a cheap toy stethoscope that belonged to his young nephew. Loubani tried using it to listen to his own heartbeat, and noticed that it actually worked.

"I thought if some toy maker with no medical experience can do this using terrible raw materials, what could I do with the best technology available and a team of very bright engineers?" he said. 

Quite a lot, in fact. Loubani said he's shocked by the stethoscope's sound quality.

"I did not think in my wildest dreams that I would get identical quality to a $300 stethoscope," said Loubani. 

Making a stethoscope is relatively simple using 'acoustics and basic science,' Loubani said, adding that well-engineered plastic can work as well as the metal that most standard stethoscopes are made of.

The future in 3D

Lucky number three: The 3D printed stethoscope should take less than three hours to print, and cost under $3, Loubani said. (Submitted)

The stethoscope is just the start for 3D-printed medical devices, Loubani said. His team has several other 3D-printed medical products in the works right now, including:

  • A tourniquet, which is used to staunch heavy bleeding.
  • An otoscope, which is used to look inside the ear.
  • A pulse oximeter, which can be used to detect carbon monoxide poisoning. 

All of these products have application in low or middle-income countries where medical products are hard to come by, Loubani said. But some, including the 3D printed pulse oximeter, would also make a big difference in London today. 

"A pulse oximeter in London, Ontario that can detect carbon monoxide poisoning is not available in the hospital because it's too expensive," he said, adding that his 3D printed version should cost about $25.

Ultimately, Loubani said he hopes the potential of 3D printing will change the relationships that doctors have with their equipment.

"So that instead of being passive consumers these people would actually be able to look at their devices, fix them, modify them, improve them and examine them," he said.

"The goal is changing the culture within medicine to become more open in the device field, drop the costs and increase the availability."