Proof-of-concept system turns smart speakers into contactless heart rhythm monitors

Smart speakers such as the Amazon Echo or the Google Nest can be used to monitor heart rhythms without physical contact as effectively as an electrocardiogram, according to research from the University of Washington published in Communications Biology.

The researchers created a proof-of-concept system where their self-supervised machine learning algorithm can turn smart speakers into short-range sonar devices that measures heart rate and inter-beat intervals for both regular and irregular rhythms.

“Heart rhythm disorders are actually more common than some other well-known heart conditions. Cardiac arrhythmias can cause major morbidities such as strokes, but can be highly unpredictable in occurrence, and thus difficult to diagnose,” said the study’s senior co-author Dr. Arun Sridhar, assistant professor of cardiology at the UW School of Medicine, in a statement.

“Availability of a low-cost test that can be performed frequently and, at the convenience of home, can be a game changer for certain patients in terms of early diagnosis and management.”

TOP-LINE DATA

Compared against ECG data for participants with a regular heart rhythm, the prototype smart speaker detected inter-beat intervals within 28 milliseconds of the standard heart monitor over nearly 12,300 heartbeats.

When used on cardiac hospital patients, the system detected inter-beat intervals within 30 milliseconds of the ECG across 5,600 heartbeats.

“We show that a smart speaker running our algorithms that is placed in front of a subject less than a meter away can identify individual heartbeats and extract heart rate and R–R intervals for both healthy participants and patients with different cardiac abnormalities,” the researchers wrote in the study. “These data could be used for studying heart rhythms, detecting cardiac arrhythmias and determining HRV.”

The prospect of contactless heart rhythm monitoring could be effective in clinical settings where patients are infectious, for telehealth purposes or in situations with patients who are intolerant to contact-based devices, according to the study.

Further, the fact that consumer smart speakers are already widely available presents an opportunity for the “next generation of health monitoring solutions,” the researchers said.

While this prototypical system is currently designed for spot checks, the research team intends to expand its use for continuous monitoring.

“If you have a device like this, you can monitor a patient on an extended basis and define patterns that are individualized for the patient. For example, we can figure out when arrhythmias are happening for each specific patient and then develop corresponding care plans that are tailored for when the patients actually need them,” Sridhar said.

“This is the future of cardiology. And the beauty of using these kinds of devices is that they are already in people’s homes.”

HOW IT WAS DONE

For the study, participants sat within one to two feet of the smart speaker while it sent inaudible sounds into the room. Based on the way the sounds were reflected off the person and back to the speaker, the researchers’ algorithms isolated and monitored individual heartbeats.

The healthy patient group included 26 participants with no history of cardiac conditions, an average age of 31 years, and the female to male ratio was 0.6.

The hospitalized group included 24 participants with cardiac abnormalities including atrial fibrillation, flutter and congestive heart failure. This group was further divided into regular (n=18) and irregular (n=6) heart rhythm groups. These groups had an average age of 63.2 and 68 years and were 11.1% and 43.3% female, respectively.

THE LARGER TREND

Researchers at the University of Washington published findings from a similar study in 2019. In that one, researchers used smartphones and virtual assistant devices to identify breathing patterns that are indicative of cardiac arrest.

The use of smart speakers and virtual assistants is growing in healthcare. Over the past year, Amazon has leveraged its Alexa voice assistant to help people brush their teeth better and to allow caregivers to remotely check in on their aging family members.

New York City’s Mount Sinai Health System also began using Google Nest devices to observe and communicate with COVID-19 patients.

 

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