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Contaminated Stethoscopes

It's hard to believe such a common medical tool could be so dangerous, but it is.

A blue stethescope

Photo: Stethoscopes (Wikimedia Commons)

It's not necessarily a bad idea to ask your doctor to clean off their stethoscope before examining you.

Here’s the thing about modern hospitals: They feature the best that modern medicine has to offer, but are also places where germs are concentrated, and where patients are routinely exposed to infectious bacteria.

And, evidently, few hospital devices are more germ ridden than the good old stethoscope. True, the hands of doctors and nurses are at the very top of the contamination list. But a study that compared bacteria on healthcare workers’ hands and on stethoscopes found that the tubular instrument is no slouch in the germ category.

The study focused on seventy-one patients examined by doctors using sterile gloves and sterile stethoscopes. Afterwards, the researchers looked at the tube and diaphragm of the stethoscope, and at four areas of the doctors’ hands. And they found that the stethoscope diaphragms contained more bacteria than all parts of the hand except the fingertips. Plus, the stethoscope tube was more contaminated than the backs of the doctors’ hands.

It’s not hard to fathom why. After all, stethoscopes come into direct contact with patients’ skin. And, evidently, stethoscopes are not always cleansed after use.

Now, to be clear, the study didn’t find that stethoscopes are or have been directly responsible for spreading dangerous bacteria. But like healthcare workers’ unwashed hands, they do appear to play a role in spreading germs from patient to patient, some of which may cause disease.

Read More:

  • Stethoscopes Do As Much Dirty Work As Hands In Spreading Germs (NPR)
  • Stethoscopes As Germ Carriers (New York Times)

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