iStethoscope iPhone app goes viral, may invite FDA scrutiny of medical smartphone apps

We media types often visit a site called Media Bistro to find out about happenings in the news business, to network with other journalists and occasionally to market our own services. We don't generally go there to find stories for FierceMobileHealthcare. It's time to make an exception because several worlds collided in the past week to bring you an interesting story.

The Internet is abuzz with iPhone geeks, marketing types, government watchdogs, healthcare IT folks and even the notorious London press chattering about what could be the killer iPhone app in healthcare: iStethoscope. As the name suggests, this app, from University College London computer scientist (and author) Peter Bentley and several cardiologists, turns the iPhone into a high-tech stethoscope that allows a doctor to listen to a patient's heartbeat and see a heart waveform on the screen, Marketing Vox reports. The app saves the last 8 seconds of audio and a spectrogram image that can be emailed.

iStethoscope comes in two editions, a free, advertising-supported version and the ad-free iStethoscope Pro, which costs 99 cents in the Apple App Store. London's Daily Telegraph reported Aug. 31 that iStethoscope was being downloaded 500 times per day since the free version debuted a week earlier.

But something funny happened on the way to rendering the humble stethoscope obsolete. On Sept. 1, a Media Bistro reporter downloaded the free app. An hour later, the app reportedly "disappeared" from the App Store. Bentley posted this note on his blog: "PLEASE NOTE: Today there is unprecedented media coverage on many radio channels, TV shows, newspapers and magazines. Because of the massive demand iStethoscope Free may be temporarily unavailable from the App Store. If this happens and you wish to try the app please check out iStethoscope Pro. Thanks for your patience!" according to Media Bistro.

A money grab perhaps? Not likely at 99 cents a pop, and considering the app comes from someone with a cushy academic appointment and a side gig as a writer to supplement his university income.

Meanwhile, another shoe was dropping. FierceMobileHealthcare readers know that the FDA is paying close attention to medical smartphone apps and is working with the FCC on a regulatory plan. The same day the Telegraph article appeared and fueled the popularity of iStethoscope, GigaOM columnist James Kendrick mentioned that very app in a column headlined, "FDA has App Stores Under Surveillance."

Kendrick writes: "While the iStethoscope app doesn't make any medical diagnoses from the heartbeats detected, other apps have clearly entered the diagnostic realm. One computer program listens to coughs to determine the underlying cause, and this program can (and probably will) be ported to a smartphone app. We've already covered apps that listen to sensors on a patient to track vital signs, and medical researchers are actively working on smartphone apps that analyze blood or saliva samples for monitoring the condition of patients with HIV and malaria."

Left unsaid is whether iStethoscope is as accurate as the old, manual kind. FDA, what do you think?

For further reading:

- check out this story from the Daily Telegraph
- see this GigaOM commentary about FDA regulation
- read this Marketing Vox article
- take a look at this Media Bistro commentary