Updating the Stethoscope with an iPod

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For an instrument that was invented in 1819, the stethoscope still provides physicians with a wealth of medical information—provided they feel comfortable using it. By listening for subtle changes in sounds produced in the chest, they can detect heart murmurs, valve problems, or various lung conditions long before symptoms emerge.

Trouble is, a growing number of younger doctors are losing that ability—if they ever had it—and so are ordering up more and more high-tech (and high-cost) diagnostic scans to learn more about their patients' internal condition.

Dr. Michael Barrett of Temple University in Philadelphia thinks he has the solution. In a study published today in the American Journal of Medicine, Barrett concluded that medical students improved their stethoscope skills dramatically if they listened to certain digitally recorded soundtracks that mimic the distinctive vibrations produced by various valve problems and other cardiac conditions.

It's the kind of situation in which practice really does make perfect. Through trial and error, Barrett discovered that you have to listen to a recording about 500 times to reliably discriminate between the different sounds made by various heart problems. Barrett produced a CD that mimicked the sounds of six abnormal heart conditions and gave it to a group of medical students, who promptly uploaded the recordings to their iPods. About two hours and 3,000 playbacks later, the students were able to correctly identify 80% of the heart sounds on a test—up from 30% before the practice listening session.

Listen to an mp3 recording and Dr. Barrett's explanation of mitral valve regurgitation here.