Electronic Design

Putting The Mind At Ease With Heart-Smart Devices

Whether it's an iPod for the teens or a 40-in. plasma HDTV for Dad, consumer electronics are the in-demand "toys" on this year's holiday wish list. But this issue's Success Story (p. 38) covers the design of one consumer device, the HeartStart defibrillator, that's serious business.

Sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) is the leading cause of death in the U.S., claiming more than 340,000 lives a year. That's more than breast cancer, prostate cancer, AIDS, house fires, handguns, and traffic accidents combined. Studies show that 70% of all heart attacks occur in the home. Most of the time, another person is home with the victim. Ready access to an automated defibrillator could save more than 40,000 lives a year, according to the American Heart Association.

The Philips HeartStart was the first defibrillator approved for sale without a prescription. Its ingenious electronic design combines sensors to check vital signs, to ensure the patient truly is in cardiac arrest, with voice prompts that walk the novice through step-by-step emergency use of the machine.

I often use this column to applaud the stellar design work of our readers, though I rarely endorse particular products. This time, I considered our readers' demographics (male, average age 47). For around $1300, every reader's home should have the HeartStart—or at least every engineering office. And unlike many trendy consumer electronic devices that will cry out for an upgrade after a few years, the Heart-Start is the sort of utilitarian safety device (such as the smoke detector) that, hopefully, just sits there giving you peace of mind but never gets used.

Only some heart attacks (death of heart tissue due to a blocked artery) lead to sudden cardiac arrest, and not all heart attacks are as easy to recognize as SCA. I don't know how many of you have ever experienced a "false" heart attack and checked yourself into an emergency ward for an electrocardiogram (EKG). Years ago, when I was just 29 or so, I had repetitive chest pains over the course of a weekend. So, I got up the nerve to take myself to the hospital.

Many men don't go to the doctor soon enough because of the potential embarrassment of one of these false alarms. Recently, one of our editors was convinced by his wife to visit the emergency room because of the "strange indigestion" he said he was having. Luckily, it was one of those false alarms.

But the recurrent fear of a heart attack also can become a psychological handicap, especially for those who have had previous heart problems. Back when I was playing in rock bands, we shared the stage with a huge bass player by the name of Tiny who couldn't play his last set because he thought he was having a heart attack. I drove Tiny to the hospital for an EKG. Apparently, he was "a regular" there.

To address such heart-attack worries, E.K. Guard is a new remote cardiac testing service that gives each subscriber a handheld personal EKG device and unlimited access to cardiologists who can remotely check the patient's heart. The system uses the HeartView P12/8 from Aerotel Medical systems, which takes heart readings via a three-wire cable system and four metal chest electrodes on the back of the unit (see the figure). The device costs $499, and the service is $69 a month (now available in the New York metro area).

Patients move the device into three chest positions to self-record a "12-lead" EKG in about one minute. The data then can be transmitted over any phone back to E.K. Guard's Cardiologist Call Center, where specialists access the patient's medical history and interpret the EKGs. If the patient is having a heart attack, the E.K. Guard medical team will mobilize needed emergency care, reducing critical time to treatment. Otherwise, you can go out and play the last set!

According to the company, subscribers can "call E.K. Guard as many times as they feel is necessary. Because even after 20 false alarms, the one real one can be fatal if you get to the hospital too late." This service is truly designed "to check your heart and ease your mind."

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