Scope for Improvement

Written by: Paul Fanning | Published:

​If there is one iconic device we associate with doctors, it is the stethoscope. So much so, that it’s almost an item of uniform for the profession. Place one around the neck of any individual and they are immediately transformed in our minds from an ordinary citizen into an expert with potentially life-saving skills.

And it’s been this way for a long time. The device was first invented in 1816 by Rene Theophile Hyacinthe Laënnec, a French physician who, using this new instrument, investigated the sounds made by the heart and lungs and determined that his diagnoses were supported by the observations made during autopsies.

As a result of this, Laënnec is considered the father of clinical auscultation and wrote the first descriptions of bronchiectasis and cirrhosis and also classified pulmonary conditions such as pneumonia, bronchiectasis, pleurisy, emphysema, pneumothorax, phthisis and other lung diseases from the sounds he heard with his invention.

This was a remarkable and transformative invention, then. However, the fact remains that it took place more than 200 years ago. Does it not seem a little odd, then, that in 2021 doctors should still be using what is to modern eyes a fairly crude amplification device as a key part of their diagnostic arsenal?

After all, we’ve grown up on science fiction in which the medics of the future assess an individual’s maladies simply by waving a device over them and then offer not just a diagnosis, but a prognosis in a matter of seconds. Given which, the use of a bit of rubber tubing feels more than a little out of date given that we are now living in what to our young minds was the technological future.

This Month’s Challenge

This month’s challenge, then, is to devise a handheld device that can offer a broad range of diagnostic capabilities to physicians everywhere. The only stipulations are that it should have the same advantages as the stethoscope – portability, ubiquity, ease of use, etc – but offer a much greater level of functionality.

Clearly the technologies exist to produce something of this sort. There are already a number of Point Of Care Tests (POCTs) available (and as ever we have a specific example in mind), but we’d still love to see what you can come up with.


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Coffee Time Challenge is just a bit of fun, but it is based on a real engineering solution. If you send in your ideas by using the comment button below, we can add your solution as an alternative – perhaps something funny, practical, cheap or, of course, innovative.

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