Acute respiratory infections are the leading cause of childhood mortality. The lack of physicians in rural areas of developing countries makes difficult their correct diagnosis and treatment. The staff of rural health facilities (health-care technicians) may not be qualified to distinguish respiratory diseases by auscultation. For this reason, the goal of this project is the development of a tele-stethoscopy system that allows a physician to receive real-time cardio-respiratory sounds from a remote auscultation, as well as video images showing where the technician is placing the stethoscope on the patient’s body.
A real-time wireless stethoscopy system was designed. The initial requirements were: 1) The system must send audio and video synchronously over IP networks, not requiring an Internet connection; 2) It must preserve the quality of cardiorespiratory sounds, allowing to adapt the binaural pieces and the chestpiece of standard stethoscopes, and; 3) Cardiorespiratory sounds should be recordable at both sides of the communication. In order to verify the diagnostic capacity of the system, a clinical validation with eight specialists has been designed. In a preliminary test, twelve patients have been auscultated by all the physicians using the tele-stethoscopy system, versus a local auscultation using traditional stethoscope. The system must allow listen the cardiac (systolic and diastolic murmurs, gallop sound, arrhythmias) and respiratory (rhonchi, rales and crepitations, wheeze, diminished and bronchial breath sounds, pleural friction rub) sounds.
The design, development and initial validation of the real-time wireless tele-stethoscopy system are described in detail. The system was conceived from scratch as open-source, low-cost and designed in such a way that many universities and small local companies in developing countries may manufacture it. Only free open-source software has been used in order to minimize manufacturing costs and look for alliances to support its improvement and adaptation. The microcontroller firmware code, the computer software code and the PCB schematics are available for free download in a subversion repository hosted in SourceForge.
It has been shown that real-time tele-stethoscopy, together with a videoconference system that allows a remote specialist to oversee the auscultation, may be a very helpful tool in rural areas of developing countries.