Digital access / Startups

With a digital stethoscope, Sonavi Labs eyes healthcare’s remote future

Coming off a pitch compeition win at HLTH 2021, the company is testing the device as a tool for patients to monitor conditions between visits. It's a sign of how regulations will need to evolve with telehealth.

At right: Sonavi Labs CEO Ellington West and chief business development officer Brandon Dottin-Haley. Via Samsung NEXT

This editorial article is a part of Tech + Health Month of's editorial calendar. This month’s theme is underwritten by the Chesapeake Digital Health Exchange. This story was independently reported and not reviewed by CDHX before publication.

The wins continue for Sonavi Labs.

About year ago, the Pigtown-based company won Startup of the Year at the 2020 Awards.

A year later, the company won the Early Stage Startup Pitch competition held on Oct. 18, during HLTH Boston 2021. The Pigtown-based company received $25,000 from the competition and an extra $10,000 from Amazon Web Services with the win. As we reported, the company also recently won $100,000 in the Princeton Empower 2021 pitch competition.

One of a group of startups developing digital health tools in Baltimore, six-employee Sonavi Labs makes a digital stethoscope that combines AI and acoustic technology. It’s designed to be easy to use, and coming at a time when healthcare is thinking beyond the clinic.

“The perception of the company is that we’re reinventing the stethoscope,” said Brandon Dottin-Haley, chief business development officer of Sonavi Labs. “That would kind of lean more into a doctor using it in a hospital. But actually we really thought about the stethoscope more as a tool to bridge patients and providers. What we’re doing is building a remote monitoring platform.”

As the definition of telemedicine evolves with its rise to mainstream consciousness, tech-enabled devices like Sonavi Labs’ digital stethoscope can be used by patients in their home, and allow a doctor to see and hear their vital signs from miles away. Currently, the only way patients can get the device is through clinical trial, and the team is working to bring it to market. When it gets there, the question will still remain of how the device will be paid for.

That’s where the new laws and regulations for telehealth over the past 18 months come into play. During the pandemic, a waiver has allowed Medicare to cover telehealth visits for any patient, anywhere, as well as provide payment equal to in-person visits. But will it be in place a year or two years from now if the pandemic is under control? Will hospitals pay for the device and provide it to patients that need homecare and monitoring the most? Even in the latter scenario, in the U.S., the costs of a hospital stay will always be visited upon a patient.

“We’re going through this whole route of reimbursement,” said Dottin-Haley. “We’re trying to work with payers, CMS [Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] getting the device covered with the HCPCS code so that way it can be covered like a DME [durable medical equipment].”

An HCPCS code, or Healthcare Common Procedure Coding System, is the standardized code used by CMS that represents medical procedures, supplies, products and services.

After receiving funding through a recent grant, Sonavi Labs is working with pediatric patients to validate the digital stethoscope as a tool for asthma patients to monitor themselves between doctors’ visits. Studies like this are done to prove the utility of the device, but there’s also incentive to prove its utility to Medicare, in hopes that the stethoscope can be covered like an inhaler.

“We’re trying to figure out how we can damn near give away the devices so at least the patients can have it in their home and be able to engage with their provider regularly,” said Dottin-Haley. “The regulations are really a challenge. The government hasn’t quite adopted a policy yet that says we will cover the tool that enable a person to have a telehealth visit. They’ll cover the visit.”

That gap in technology to enable a telehealth visit is where Sonavi Labs’ niche is. The company understands there’s inequity there. Through both creating the tech and having conversations with hospitals, insurers and regulators, the team is trying to increase access to quality healthcare.

“If you have a healthcare provider who’s willing to do a telehealth visit with you, [CMS] will pay that doctor for doing that visit,” said Dottin-Haley. “But [they] won’t provide you with any tools. You have to have a cell phone, tablet or computer that would have broadband access, video capabilities. These are all things that have to be taken care of by the user, just right now for a telehealth visit. As we’re thinking about this from a technological standpoint, we realize that’s not feasible. We can’t expect for everybody to have the same technology capabilities to engage with healthcare.”

Donte Kirby is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation.
Companies: Sonavi Labs
Series: Tech + Health Month 2021

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