Wireless, ultrasonic personal health monitoring system: Instantaneous and personal health information at your fingertips—that is the oft-imagined innovation that could change medicine. Physician-inventor David Albert, chief medical officer of AliveCor, headquartered in San Francisco, first envisioned a portable, easy way to measure personal heart health when Palm Pilots debuted in the late 1990s. Smartphone processors, however, were not powerful enough until the latest generation of devices such as the Droid and the iPhone.

After several clinical trials, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Patent no. 8,301,232 for use last November. The patent describes an electrocardiogram (ECG) device that snaps in place around a smartphone, currently the iPhone 4 or 4S, like a protective cover. The case is embedded with sensors and electronics that measure the electrical activity of the heart. Users can record their heart rate by placing their fingers on the sensors. An ultrasonic signal relays data from the monitor to the smartphone and the AliveECG app. A distant physician can examine the pattern over a secure wireless connection. The readout is not as complete as a typical 12-lead ECG, but the smartphone version provides an accurate proxy in tests.

“The ECG is a valuable and extremely well understood way of assessing the heart and allowing us to diagnose problems,” Albert says. “We wanted to put that power into the pocket of any physician, nurse, EMT—and ultimately give power to the patient as well.”

The display still requires a trained eye to decipher, but the company is rolling out improvements. For example, one pending patent details a software enhancement that automatically detects atrial fibrillation—a common arrhythmia responsible for one third of all strokes.