Streaming ECG Technology Could Keep Athletes’ Heartbeats Going

November 21st, 2014
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According to Running USA’s annual marathon report, in 2013 more than 541,000 runners finished over 1,100 marathons, which is a 140% increase in participation since 1990. Increasingly women are joining this running class and now represent almost half the participants. Also adding to this group is a growing number of older runners— those ages 40 and above.

The benefits from running are endless, including reduction of heart disease, increased lung capacity, weight loss, improved bone density, stress reduction and improved mental health. With all of the good news associated with running, there is also a bit of bad news – a small risk of sudden cardiac death (SCD). We are often shocked to hear of an athlete’s death during a race or game. During the 2009 Detroit Marathon, for example, three men died of SCD. The youngest SCD victim was 26 and the oldest 65. SCD events are rare in athletes – about 1 in 50,000 to 1 in 200,000 annually. These deaths generally occur during or after short intense bursts of energy. SCD events effect more men and more non-Caucasian individuals. Sports that require short bursts of activity — basketball, football, soccer, etc. – seem to pose a higher risk of SCD.

While prescreening for coronary artery disease or abnormalities of the heart may seem a logical approach to preventing SCD, these screenings do not always reveal problems, especially in asymptomatic individuals. There is a current debate about the utility of pre-participation screening, due to the cost and extent of testing. Running these tests on all athletes/race participants would be very costly and labor-intensive.

As with many sporting events that are played indoor or in a stadium, rapid response teams are often on site and defibrillators are accessible during marathons. But an outdoor course of 26 miles presents its own challenges to strategically plot out best locations for medical teams to be stationed to respond within minutes of a cardiac arrest.

Last month, investigators from the Center for Cardiovascular Telemedicine, Charité-­Universitätsmedizin in Berlin presented their results at the first European Congress on e-Cardiology and e-Health on a proof-of-concept small electrocardiogram (ECG) device attached to a smartphone that could immediately detect rhythm disorders in athletes throughout a race. In this study, 10 marathon runners in two different marathons wore the device on the same arm. Data from the second marathon was transmitted to a telemedicine center in Berlin using Bluetooth technology.  Rapid data transfer enabled the telemedicine center to track the runners in almost real-time.

The ECG-smartphone appears to be a great method for offering a constant stream of cardiovascular monitoring that could be tracked by medical professionals, even remotely. However, a medical response team will still need to be rapidly deployed at any point along a 26-mile course to treat any impending cardiovascular events. While more fine-tuning of the technology itself as well as that technology’s integration with medical teams is needed, I believe it will not be long before a streaming ECG will be part of the range of technology-enabling devices that may help prevent SCD in athletes and non-athletes.

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About the Author:

I have 20 years experience in clinical research, including leading diagnostic and pharmaceutical clinical studies in disease areas ranging from cancer to infectious disease to cardiology, diabetes, and autoimmune disorders. Send me an email.