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J Electrocardiol. 2008 Jan-Feb;41(1):8-14. doi: 10.1016/j.jelectrocard.2007.08.059.

What is inside the electrocardiograph?

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Advanced Algorithm Research Center, Philips Medical Systems, 3 Andover, MA 01810, USA.


The details of digital recording and computer processing of a 12-lead electrocardiogram (ECG) remain a source of confusion for many health care professionals. A better understanding of the design and performance tradeoffs inherent in the electrocardiograph design might lead to better quality in ECG recording and better interpretation in ECG reading. This paper serves as a tutorial from an engineering point of view to those who are new to the field of ECG and to those clinicians who want to gain a better understanding of the engineering tradeoffs involved. The problem arises when the benefit of various electrocardiograph features is widely understood while the cost or the tradeoffs are not equally well understood. An electrocardiograph is divided into 2 main components, the patient module for ECG signal acquisition and the remainder for ECG processing which holds the main processor, fast printer, and display. The low-level ECG signal from the body is amplified and converted to a digital signal for further computer processing. The Electrocardiogram is processed for display by user selectable filters to reduce various artifacts. A high-pass filter is used to attenuate the very low frequency baseline sway or wander. A low-pass filter attenuates the high-frequency muscle artifact and a notch filter attenuates interference from alternating current power. Although the target artifact is reduced in each case, the ECG signal is also distorted slightly by the applied filter. The low-pass filter attenuates high-frequency components of the ECG such as sharp R waves and a high-pass filter can cause ST segment distortion for instance. Good skin preparation and electrode placement reduce artifacts to eliminate the need for common usage of these filters.

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