Are Chicago doctors’ stethoscopes contaminating you?

Thumbnail image for stethoscopeMost Cook County residents would never dream of sharing a toothbrush with another person, but plenty of us are sharing stethoscopes. Do physicians ever clean those things? A new study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings not only recommends doctors clean stethoscopes regularly but encourages disinfection after each patient use.

The study author, a World Health Organization infection control specialist, said stethoscopes are more contaminated with bacteria than you realize. Stethoscopes were used in the study to examine 71 patients. The round, flat diaphragm placed on a patient’s body was found to have more bacteria than any area on the physician’s hands, other than the fingertips, and stethoscope necks were dirtier than the backs of the doctor’s hands.

The study was small, but the implications about stethoscope contaminant transmission were enormous. Critics have already blasted the medical community for sloppy hand-washing practices. Now, recommended between-patient cleaning practices include alcohol swabbing stethoscopes.

The head of the American College of Physicians Board of Regents believes anything less than full compliance with hand hygiene rules is unacceptable. Do doctors lack time or effort? An emergency health care provider study found only 13 percent of the medical professionals cleansed their hands, before making physical contact with patients; other studies found even lower percentages of adequate hand washing.

Devices are ready or being tested that may help curb the spread of bacteria and other contaminants from patient to patient. One device can tell whether hospital staff members are washing their hands often enough. A second device, available today, could replace stethoscopes altogether – mobile, hand-sized ultrasounds.

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to track evidence of a patient’s injuries to a single stethoscope or doctor’s hands. It’s encouraging to know health care professionals are studying methods to improve patient safety. Doctors have others reason to reduce hospital mistakes, the least of which is not protection from liability lawsuits.

Source: CBS News, “Stethoscopes can be dirtier than most parts of doctor's hands” Michelle Castillo, Feb. 28, 2014

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Are Chicago doctors’ stethoscopes contaminating you?