If you were to name one object that is associated with doctors, what would it be? Chances are that most of us would name Stethoscope – that trusty instrument that is always wrapped around their necks and is a constant companion of the doctors and nurses.
It is unusual to go to the doctor’s office and not be examined with the use of stethoscope, which is used to listen to heart, lungs and blood flow.
However, have you stopped to think about where else that stethoscope been? Whom else it has touched? Has your doctor cleaned your stethoscope after seeing his or her last patient? And are you (or your doctor) at some risk if this stethoscope has not been cleaned?
Stethoscope – Some “Dirty” Facts
Well, as it turns out, these are not trivial questions. It is also a bit strange, considering that for pretty much every other activity, the doctors or nurses take precautions to protect themselves and the patients. They wear fresh disposable examination gloves for each patient and then discard them after use. They use fresh paper liners for examination table, put new disposable tips for their digital thermometers when they take temperatures, and use fresh tips on otoscopes when they examine your ears. All for good reason – they do not want to contaminate the next patient with viruses or microbes from the previous patient.
So, what about the stethoscope? Should there be such precautions taken? Well, the answer is an emphatic yes. In fact there have been a number of studies that point out that majority of stethoscopes do in fact carry disease-carrying microbes including the drug-resistant bacteria MRSA. For example, one study showed that 90% of the physicians’ stethoscopes were contaminated with microbes, whereas another study showed that only a third of the healthcare workers cleaned their stethoscopes regularly. One of the microbes that is often found is a deadly drug-resistant bacteria called MRSA.
MRSA – A Deadly and Expensive Healthcare Problem
MRSA, short for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, is a kind of Staphylococcus aureus (“staph”) bacteria that is resistant to some kinds of antibiotics. Amongst others, it is resistant to a family of antibiotics related to penicillin that includes antibiotics called methicillin and oxacillin. Almost a third of the population carries staph bacteria on their skin or in their noses, most of the time without any ill-effects. However, in sick patients whose immune-systems are already compromised, they can wreck havoc and can cause serious illnesses and even death.
Today, hospitals are a major cause of spread of infections. After-all, this is a high risk environment with a large number of sick, immuno-compromised patients concentrated in one area, and infections can spread rapidly here. Around June 2007, it was estimated that some 2.4% of all hospital patients (or 880,000 patients) had MRSA infection, a staggering number. Considering that MRSA infections have been rising exponentially (starting with only 2,000 cases in 1993, jumping to some 368,000 cases in 2005, and to 880,000 cases in 2007), today this number could be well over a million cases.
In addition to the risk to patients (and healthcare providers), which includes serious illnesses and deaths, this is one of the most expensive problems in today’s healthcare. At roughly $15,000 per infection, it costs US healthcare system roughly $30 billion to treat 2 million patient infections caused during hospital stays.
Stethoscope Safety Awareness Growing
It has been known for a long time that stethoscopes can carry disease-carrying microbes. In fact, there is significant research evidence going back to 1972, linking stethoscope to transmission of infection. It has also been repeatedly emphasized that stethoscopes should be cleaned with alcohol to prevent infection.
However, this is hard to put into practice. Compliance from the healthcare workers is poor, and frankly, in some of the busy environments such as trauma centers and busy emergency rooms, there may be little time to clean these.
Of late there have been some solutions in the marketplace. One is a disposable stethoscope cap – a step in the right direction, but it does not go far enough. It does cover the chest piece of the stethoscope but leaves nearly 80-90% of the stethoscope area including tubes still exposed. And when providers are wearing this around their necks all the time, it does not provide adequate protection.
Of course disposable stethoscopes have been around for some time, specifically for high risk areas. But at a cost of $3 or so, they are a somewhat expensive solution, and also for that cost, their quality (particularly acoustic quality, a key to stethoscope performance) is quite poor.
Disposable Stethoscope Sleeve – A New Weapon for Stethoscope Safety
Now however, Avossi Medical, a NY-based medical products manufacturer has come up with a unique and simple solution to this problem. They have developed a disposable sleeve or cover that will cover not just the chest-piece but the whole stethoscope. The so-called full coverage stethoscope sleeve, sold by its tradename StethoMitt, is first of its kind in the market and made of familiar non-woven polypropylene material which provides a good barrier to fluids and microbes. It is of a similar material as that used in surgical gowns and masks. The device is inexpensive enough to be used as a single-use, disposable sleeve, and takes only seconds to put on and take off. Best of all, being a full-coverage device, it not only protects both the healthcare provider and the patients, but allows the providers to use their favorite stethoscope without compromising on acoustic qualities. Avossi is making this product available through an online store and also through its marketing representatives.
Stethoscope Sleeves – Must for Some Areas
Although, every healthcare workers using stethoscopes should take precautions of cleaning the stethoscope or using more convenient alternatives such as StethoMitt, these should be a required item for any trauma center, infectious disease center or in emergency rooms and emergency workers.
Perhaps it may be not too long before such sleeves could be as commonplace as examination gloves!