Listening to Heart Sounds Could Curb Heart Failure

For decades, emergency room doctors have pulled out their stethoscopes to listen for a distinct, but hard to hear sound that indicates a person complaining of chest pain may be having a heart attack. A new study, which has concluded that many physicians may not hear the sound and thus misdiagnose a patient, is suggesting that a new technology called acoustic cardiography should be used to pick up the faint, but telling sound that a person suffers from heart disease or is experiencing heart failure.

The problematic sound is known as the S3 rhythm. Two other sounds, S1 and S2, are measures of normal blood flow and make distinct sounds when ventricles open and close. But S3 is an indication of increased blood volume rushing through the heart - a potential sign of cardiac disease or heart failure - and its low frequency and pitch may not be heard with a stethoscope.

If detected, a physician mostly likely will diagnose a heart condition and the patient will be treated accordingly. But if undetected, the heart condition could worsen and could ultimately result in death. The revelation about the S3 and potential effects on heart patients was discovered during a trial study of emergency room patients at nine hospitals over several months in 2006.

The findings determined that emergency room physicians using stethoscopes diagnosed heart failure only 50 percent of the time, while those using acoustic cardiography increased the diagnosis to 70 percent. Acoustic cardiography was particularly helpful with obese patients, the study found.

While the results showed a distinct improvement in the diagnosis of heart disease or failure, it's unclear what, if any, effects acoustic cardiography could have on potential malpractice suits. The technology is still fairly new and not 100 percent effective. And despite its improvement over the stethoscope, nearly one third of all patients remained undiagnosed.