Breakthrough new software that can diagnose real-time breathing difficulties in babies, when used with digital stethoscopes, has been developed by Australian researchers at Monash University.

The software removes all of the surrounding noise from chest recordings so the heart and lung sounds are separated and very clean for analysis.

In clinical settings, it enables doctors and nurses to listen to them very clearly without interference and better diagnose any potential issues.

It can also be used in the home environment, giving parents a score on the quality of the chest sound they have recorded, allowing them to know whether it is good enough for the doctor to analyse.

It can even indicate if they need to reposition the digital stethoscope on the newborn's chest to collect another sample.

Very specialised placement on the back or chest is required to get the sound that is needed by a doctor.

“The software will guide them to the right location,” said Dr Faezeh Marzbanrad, from the Department of Electrical and Computer Systems Engineering at Monash.

Dr Faezeh Marzbanrad

Enabling high-quality chest recordings

In full-term babies, and particularly more vulnerable preterm infants where respiratory issues are common, the neonatal period is the most crucial time for their survival, with 1.7 per cent of live births resulting in mortality, according to UNICEF data.

However, low-quality chest sounds due to noise from the external environment, other internal body sounds, or the device itself, can hinder the use of conventional or digital stethoscopes and complicate monitoring and diagnosis, or worse – can lead to misdiagnosis.

The stethoscope-recorded chest sounds contain important cardiac and respiratory information that provides a picture of the health status of newborn babies and can enable timely intervention.

This helps clinicians analyse crucial information needed for assessment of the signs of serious health risks, potentially improving neonatal survival and reducing long-term morbidity risks.

Improved resolution leads to swifter diagnosis

Up until now, the challenge has been that chest sounds in newborn babies are very difficult to assess and interpret, especially in preterm and sick babies.

In infants, small chest size, fast breathing rate and heart rate and even additional sounds of NICU equipment makes it difficult to hear a clear chest sound.

This software gives much better resolution to interpret, assess and monitor newborn illness.

Dr Marzbanrad and a team of researchers examined chest sounds of 119 preterm and full term babies to assess the effect of signal quality on vital sign estimation, which found increasing the quality of the signal recorded leads to a reduction in vital sign error.

This system is particularly useful in rural or remote settings, or if parents want to keep their baby at home and monitor them.

As Dr Marzbanrad explained, it’s not always practical to get to a doctor, and on many occasions breathing problems happen overnight when you can’t get to a doctor.

“This ensures that you can record the sound in real-time and it’s something useful for the doctor to assess,” she said.