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From iPod to Stethoscope: MP3 Files Now Train Docs

By Katherine Noyes MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Mar 27, 2007 4:00 AM PT

The effects of iPod use on your hearing may be open to some debate, but a new study has made it clear that iPods can be good for heart health -- particularly if you're in the business of diagnosing heart problems.

From iPod to Stethoscope: MP3 Files Now Train Docs

Researchers at Temple University have found that medical students and doctors both get dramatically better at recognizing the sounds of different heart murmurs by stethoscope when they are first trained by listening to recordings of the differences on an iPod.

The research team, led by Michael Barrett, a clinical associate professor of medicine at Temple, first measured the rate at which physicians and medical students could successfully identify different heart murmurs by stethoscope before the training. Typically, it was between 30 and 40 percent, Barrett said.

Again and Again

The training, which consisted of listening to each distinct heart murmur many times -- 400 beats, to be exact, for each different type -- was then conducted using MP3 files on an iPod.

Then, the researchers measured the rate of successful diagnosis by stethoscope again. The good news: Correct sound identifications jumped to between 80 and 90 percent in both medical students and physicians following the training.

Proficiency with a stethoscope is a critical skill for identifying heart conditions and minimizing dependence on costly medical tests. Yet using a stethoscope to listen to the heart -- know as cardiac auscultation -- is a vanishing skill, Barrett told MacNewsWorld.

'A Vanishing Skill'

"One of the laments you'll hear from older physicians is that we have such great new cardiac tests -- imaging tests, in particular, such as ultrasounds -- that cardiac auscultation skills are now redundant," Barrett explained. "But I don't think that's actually the case. I think the real reason the skill is vanishing is that we don't teach it properly."

Traditional teaching methods involve a lecture on the topic along with a demonstration of 15 or so beats for each type of abnormality. "Teachers didn't realize these kids need to hear each murmur hundreds of times," he pointed out. "It's like shooting a free throw in basketball -- you need to practice many, many times."

The prospect of listening to each distinct pattern hundreds of times may seem daunting, but in fact it only takes about 10 minutes to listen to 500 beats, Barrett added.

Youth Has Its Say

It was Barrett's medical students, he stressed who identified the iPod as the ideal training tool. "I was burning new CDs each month," Barrett recalled. "Then one time I bumped into some of my students, and they were all listening to iPods. Not one of them was listening to a CD."

Barrett's heart sounds are now available both online and on CD through a partnership with the American College of Cardiology, and demand has been overwhelming, he said, with inquiries coming from all around the world. Temple's School of Medicine, meanwhile, has launched a new, four-year curriculum on cardiac auscultation that relies on different types of simulators, including iPods.

Practice for the Real Thing

"This is a chance to put together, in a very controlled fashion, what you're going to hear when you're with a real patient," Robert Campbell, chief medical officer at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta Sibley Heart Center, told MacNewsWorld. "Then, when you have a patient, in your mind you can take apart the patient's sounds piece by piece to see what's abnormal about the exam."

While tools have existed for many years to train doctors by simulating the sounds of different heart conditions, they were large, ungainly devices, Campbell added -- a far cry from the slim and portable iPod.

Indeed, Barrett now foresees a day when doctors commonly listen to heart sounds during their commute to work. "There are two times when a busy practitioner can learn a new skill: at professional meetings and during their work commute," he noted.

Murmurs and More

"It's not just heart murmurs -- it's heart sounds in general," said Reynolds Delgado, a cardiologist with the Texas Heart Institute. "Valve problems, heart dysfunctions, heart attacks -- lots of problems can be picked up by listening to sounds."

Part of the beauty of the iPod in this context is the quality of sound it produces, Delgado told MacNewsWorld. "Teaching these skills to medical students has always been a challenge because the technologies were often not high-fidelity," he explained. iPods, on the other hand, filter out extraneous external noises, producing a high-quality sound much like that heard through a good stethoscope, he said. "It gives you a lifelike, realistic sound."

When combined with the ability to transfer MP3 files on the Internet, the result, Delgado added, "is a great learning tool. I think it's a wonderful thing."


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