FRIDAY, May 17 (HealthDay News) -- There are apps that turn your
smartphone into a metal detector, a musical instrument and a GPS
system, and now there's an app that may help doctors save your life
if you're having a heart attack.
The app, which was designed by engineers and critical care
physicians, helps doctors rapidly diagnose certain kinds of severe
heart attacks, called STEMIs, before patients get to the
The app currently is in the experimental stage, but it has
undergone field testing.
In a STEMI heart attack, which stands for ST segment elevated
myocardial infarction, a clot completely blocks blood flow to the
heart. About a quarter of a million people have STEMIs each year in
the United States.
These kinds of heart attacks create a unique pattern of pulses
when doctors hook up patients to an electrocardiogram, or EKG,
machine, which measures the heart's electrical activity.
The problem is that doctors need to see the EKG reading, which
is called a tracing, to properly diagnose the attack and quickly
assemble the team of specialists that is needed to clear the
There are proprietary systems that use EKG machines hooked up to
modems to send images back to hospital computers, but those systems
are expensive and not all hospitals and EMS systems can afford
As an alternative, paramedics can use their smartphones in the
field to snap a picture of the tracing and send it to a doctor at
the hospital via email.
But as anyone who has ever tried to email a picture from their
phone knows, it's far from foolproof. Large, high-quality images --
the kind doctors need to see -- can take several minutes to send
To address the issue, Dr. David Burt, an associate professor of
emergency medicine at the University of Virginia, challenged a
class of systems engineering students to develop an app that could
shrink images to make them faster to send, but still maintain the
clarity needed for diagnoses.
"It's very easy to use," Burt said. "You hold it over the EKG tracing, you snap a picture." Hitting a button sends the image. When it's finished, the app shakes and makes noise to alert senders to the successful transmission.
"It's very simple but we want it to be very rugged, so that it's kind of like a hammer -- it always works," he said. He also wants to offer the app at no cost to doctors and hospitals.
So far, Burt said, they have tested the app more than 1,500
times using different wireless carriers in a city.
They also have pitted the app against the alternative method of
using an iPhone to email a picture. In that study, the app
consistently sent images within four to six seconds. Emailed images
could take nearly two minutes to go through. The app failed less
than 1 percent of the time, while the emailed images flopped
between 3 percent and 71 percent of the time, according to the
The study is scheduled for presentation Friday at an American
Heart Association meeting in Baltimore. Studies presented at
medical conferences are considered preliminary because they haven't
yet undergone the scrutiny required for publication in a
Dr. Iltifat Husain, founder of the iMedicalApps website, which
keeps up with news about technology in medicine, said he was
impressed by the app, but also by how thoroughly the team has been
testing it. Husain estimates that less than 1 percent of apps that
are developed for doctors are field tested to see if they actually
"Something like this would have to be tested before it was put to use because of how critical the information is that you're relaying," said Husain, who was not involved in the research.
Husain, who also is an emergency medicine resident at Wake
Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., said the time the app
shaves off image transmission could be critical.
"The longer you wait, the more heart muscle dies, so every minute counts," he said. "Actually, every second counts."
Surviving a STEMI depends on how quickly doctors can restore
blood flow, which often is done by snaking a catheter up to the
heart and using a small balloon to clear the clot.
"We'll get an EKG reading and the ER physician will activate the cath lab. Once you activate it, a huge team has to be assembled," Husain said. "If it's overnight, people are sometimes coming in from home. If you can get someone coming in from home five minutes faster, I think it's a big deal."
For more about heart attacks, head to the
U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood
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