NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Germs may be lurking in another discreet place at the doctor’s office. Turns out stethoscopes might not be as clean as you’d suspect, new research shows.

Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine observed the hygiene of a chosen medical facility’s stethoscopic devices over a four-week period, during which medical students, resident physicians, and attending physicians were all present.

Doctor using stethoscope to listen to boy
Researchers at Yale University found that stethoscopes — which can carry a cocktail of germs — are rarely, if ever, cleaned by doctors after being used on a patient.

Overall, the researchers saw no instances of stethoscopes being sterilized, whether that was via alcohol swabs, alcohol gel, or disinfectant wipes.

“Stethoscopes are used repeatedly throughout the day and become contaminated after each patient exposure, so they must be treated as potential vectors of transmission,” explains researcher Linda Greene, president of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, in a press release. “Failing to disinfect stethoscopes could constitute a serious patient safety issue similar to ignoring hand hygiene.”

The research project simply confirms previous research that has found that practicing physicians often eschew cleaning their instruments between patient visits.

Following their initial observations, the researchers informed the professionals of the importance in practicing hygiene with their stethoscopic devices, yet little had changed during a follow-up observation phase.

“Standard education may not be the answer to this problem,” the study’s authors noted. “Behavioral and cultural modification to improve hand hygiene still remains a challenge, despite being studied in large randomized trials. Stethoscope hygiene implementation will need more consistent efforts to change culture and habits.”

Meanwhile, hand hygiene has become part of the status quo in American society, leading the researchers to argue that similar campaigns need to be waged for the hygiene of stethoscopes.

Stethoscopes have been proven to carry many viruses, including Staphylococcus aureus, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Clostridium difficile, and vancomycin-resistant enterococci.

While the researchers’ hypothesis was ultimately correct, that doesn’t bode well for the average patient.

The study’s findings were published in the American Journal of Infection Control.

About Daniel Steingold

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