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Smartphone detects danger in a heartbeat

Electrode sensors on the skin link to a chip and radio module clipped to a patient's belt sending continuous data to a smartphone.
Electrode sensors on the skin link to a chip and radio module clipped to a patient's belt sending continuous data to a smartphone.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • New invention to help doctors respond to heart problems more quickly
  • Lightweight device offers round-the-clock remote monitoring of patients
  • Images of heart-rate anomalies are sent via text or email to doctor for instant analysis

London (CNN) -- A new medical invention which harnesses the power of smartphone technology could revolutionize the treatment of heart patients, according to researchers in Switzerland.

The autonomous tool -- developed jointly by the Embedded Systems and Telecommunications Circuits labs at Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) -- not only automatically identifies anomalies in heart-rate, but also alerts doctors in seconds helping them treat patients more quickly.

"Many of the problems with the heart are not very well understood," says David Atienza, head of the Embedded Systems Lab.

"It's very difficult for doctors to anticipate what is going to happen. This device will provide a better understanding of what is going on," Atienza added.

The small, lightweight monitor consists of four non-invasive electrode sensors attached to the skin which are linked to a radio module and computer chip which clips onto a patient's belt.

Data is fed to the user's smartphone where it can be viewed in real time for anything up to 150 hours on a single charge.

It's very difficult for doctors to anticipate what is going to happen. This device will provide a better understanding of what is going on.
David Atienza from EPFL, Switzerland

Complex algorithms flag up any abnormalities with data sent to a doctor for examination via a picture attachment on text or email.

Watch Atienza explain how the new tool works

"The system collects very reliable and precise data," Atienza says, "but above all it provides an automatic analysis and immediate transmission of data to the doctor, preventing him or her from having to work through hours of recorded data."

It's taken four years to develop and is a leap forward, Atienza says, from more bulky Holter monitors which are generally worn by patients for around 24 hours at a time.

Cardiologist Etienne Pruvot from Lausanne University Hospitals Cardiology Service -- one of two hospitals helping Atienza and his team develop the device -- is excited by its potential.

"Its size, its lightness, its ease of use, the fact that it measures continuously and remotely, which allows analysis to take place anywhere, makes this device very attractive to doctors," Pruvot said in a statement.

Atienza is also confident the tool will find other health-related uses: monitoring athletic performance, perhaps, or assessing diet and physical activity in obese patients, he says.

EPFL's research is part of the wider "Guardian Angels for a Smarter Life" project -- a pan-European project involving universities, research institutions and private companies -- which aims to develop small, autonomous and affordable technology to monitor health and also prevent accidents.

Peter J. Bentley, a computer scientist from the UK's University College London and inventor of the iStethescope app says there is currently a big push for these kinds of technologies.

"Certainly the way medicine seems to be moving is towards ever greater use of mobile devices," Bentley said.

"We are all very excited about the possibilities -- the ability to sample all kinds of different data, store it, transmit it and process it.

"It allows us to monitor different aspects of a patient's health and get data to specialists wherever they are," he added.

We are all very excited about the possibilities -- the ability to sample all kinds of different data, store it, transmit it and process it.
Peter J. Bentley, University College London

Many doctors are already using smartphone apps (there are thousands to choose from) but regulation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and European legislators is looming, says Bentley.

"In some respects this is a good thing because it's going to ensure (portable medical) devices will be effective," says Bentley, who is currently developing a new automated triage system.

"But the downside is that it takes a long time and slows down the rapid innovation we currently have," he said.

The World Health Organization estimates that 17 million people die of cardiovascular disease every year.

Many of these deaths, Atienza says, happen because the type of pathology isn't detected in time.

"The beauty of this type of device is that you can monitor people 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Atienza said.

Not only will this simplify life for heart patients (less trips to the hospital), he thinks, but it could also slash costs for healthcare systems.

Furthermore, Atienza predicts that wearable round-the-clock monitoring devices will bring about new types of analysis, leading to new treatments and ultimately save lives all around the world.

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