Innovative 3D-printed stethoscope saves lives

Special to Western NewsA 3D-printed stethoscope costs $3 to produce and can be a lifesaver in areas of the world where other medical technology is scarce. Dr. Tarek Loubani and his team developed open-source software that makes the technology both affordable and accessible.

Dr. Tarek Loubani has worked as an emergency room physician in hospitals during some of their most desperate times. In 2012, he was practising in a hospital in Gaza, and found himself sharing his one stethoscope with ten other doctors who were trying to treat more than 100 patients.

“We weren’t just low on medical supplies, but even the basics, like stethoscopes, were totally missing,” said Loubani, who is an associate professor at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, associate scientist at Lawson Health Research Institute and an emergency room physician at London Health Sciences Centre.

Loubani decided he needed to find a way health care providers could create their own supplies on site and eliminate the medical supply chain when access to medical supplies was limited.

He remembers vividly when a solution came into clear view: the day he was playing with a toy stethoscope and noticed that it performed its function quite well. That was the genesis of the idea that led him and his team to create an open-access template for a 3D-printed stethoscope that could be created using recycled plastic.

Now, the team’s stethoscope has been clinically validated, and their results are published in the journal PLOS ONE.

The stethoscope, called the Glia model, was made using free open-source software to keep costs low and allow others to easily access the code. With the Glia template, the stethoscope can be made in less than three hours and costs less than $3 to produce.

“Our product from this research is not the stethoscope, it is how to make the stethoscope and how to ensure that it is the best quality,” Loubani said.

Anyone with a 3D printer and access to ABS – a plastic used to make garden chairs and Lego – can create the device.

“As far as we know this is the first open-source medical device that has been clinically validated,” said Loubani. “We wanted physicians and allied health care professionals to be able to have something that was high quality. We found that the acoustic quality was the same in our stethoscope as in a premium brand stethoscope.”

The stethoscope is currently being used by physicians and allied health professionals in Gaza and also here in London at the London Health Sciences Centre.

Loubani says stethoscopes may not been seen as vital for diagnosis and treatment in places such as London, where physicians rely heavily on ultrasound, CT and other diagnostic technologies. However, in war-torn and low-income countries, it is a necessary tool.

“Stethoscope utility goes up as other resources go down. In London, if someone gets shot, I can use an ultrasound and look inside and see if there is a life-threating air pocket called a pneumothorax. In Gaza, ultrasounds are not available in the emergency department, or are dilapidated, so the stethoscope becomes an inexpensive tool that allows us to make life-saving decisions.”

The hope now, is to create templates for other medical devices that can be made or improved on-site, he said.