The People's Perspective on Medicine

Could a Do-It-Yourself ECG Save Your Life?

A do-it-yourself ECG achieved through a mobile phone device and app can detect a-fib and facilitate treatment.

Atrial fibrillation is a common change in heart rhythm that can increase a person’s risk of developing a blood clot in the upper chamber of the heart that then travels to the brain. This is a recipe for disaster in the form of a stroke.

Atrial fibrillation can be treated. Sometimes doctors are able to do this surgically, using a technique called “ablation.” At other times, they may prescribe a medication to control the heart rhythm. The most common treatment, however, is an anticoagulant to keep the blood from clotting and prevent a stroke.

You Can Do This at Home:

Before atrial fibrillation (A-fib) can be treated, however, it has to be detected. A-fib may cause palpitations, shortness of breath or difficulty with exercise, but frequently it does not cause symptoms at all. In addition, if it does cause palpitations, the episode may clear up by the time a patient can make an appointment with a doctor and have an ECG. (After the history and physical exam, this is the second step in a standard diagnosis.)

But you don’t have to go to a doctor’s office to get an ECG. This reader has been told about a do-it-yourself ECG that has been determined to be very helpful in making this diagnosis. The accompanying picture is a screen shot of the mobile phone app.

Do-It-Yourself ECG:

Q. I have occasional heart palpitations. My doctor suggested I buy a device for my phone called AliveCor. He said it would detect atrial fibrillation. Is that true?

A. The AliveCor device and app is available for iPhone and Android phones. It provides a mobile electrocardiogram that it can analyze quickly for A-fib. You can share the ECG with your doctor.

The AliveCor device and algorithm have been compared to standard ECG results in several groups of patients (Journal of Cardiovascular Electrophysiology, May, 2015). If you would like to listen to a cardiologist describe his experience using the AliveCor app on his iPhone, you may wish to listen to our hour-long interview with Eric Topol, MD.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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After years of tachycardia incidents–beginning in 2004–without being able to capture, I did a google search and found AlivCor. I’ve worn the 24-hour holter monitor and the 30-day monitor, twice, without any success–my incidents were simply too infrequent. While lately they have increased in frequency and duration, again, they were too infrequent and didn’t last long enough to consider going to the ER.

For roughly $80 (the cost of the device, the app is free), I figured it was worth a shot. About a month later, I got to try it out. Eureka! Abnormal ECG! I took several 30-second traces (you can vary the length of record time). Later, I packaged as a single PDF and sent to my Primary Care Doc. He had me come in for a face-to-face and based on my ECG from the app, referred me to a cardiologist. Neither had seen the AliveCor, but both were impressed. On my second visit to the cardiologist, he mentioned that he had researched the device, and had recommended to several patients who were in my boat.

AliveCor’s software is designed specifically to trigger an alert for a-fib. Any abnormal trace other than a-fib returns an “unrecognized” warning (that can be turned off). This only means that whatever the trace reveals (for me, SVT) isn’t a-fib, but the trace is still a very accurate indicator of what is going on with your heart and is enough for a doctor to diagnose.

If you have infrequent heart palpitations and haven’t been able to capture for accurate diagnosis, then this little device is perfect and–bonus–less than the cost of a late-night visit to the ER!

I purchased AliveCor to catch the arrythmias I’ve experienced for the last 30 years, which are now increasing. I did experience a scary episode of tachycardia, which was recorded by AliveCor, so I was able to show the AliveCor EKG recording to my cardiologist since AliveCor allows users to print out the EKG. It’s my personal opinion that the AliveCor device has been helpful to me because it allows me to capture and print out any abnormal heart sensations which I can show to my cardiologist between office visits. It’s pretty frustrating just trying to describe the heart sensations and arrythmias I feel so it’s good to have “proof” of them.

I also purchased AliveCor, and I would give it a ‘C’ rating, simply because I get a lot of ‘unclassified’ readings, and according to my cardiologist, my heart is ok. When I do get a reading, it seems to be accurate.

Would a (non- defib) pacemaker interfere with the app?

I’ve used the AliveCor device for some time now. It’s mostly an interesting gadget for me, and a fun toy to play with at parties. So far, I’ve had 100% “normal” returns, although I do have a known abnormality in my ECG (which MDs’ office ECGs also usually miss). For those who worry about A-fib, it’s probably worth the (under $100) price.

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