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Stethoscopes Are More Contaminated than Physicians’ Hands

Update Date: Feb 27, 2014 01:38 PM EST

When doctors deal with patients, whether it is in a hospital setting or at the office, sterility is important. In order to reduce the likelihood of infections transferring from one another, people are reminded to disinfect using soap or other substances. Despite the importance of having a clean environment, a new study is reporting that a physician's stethoscope is more contaminated with bacteria than some areas of his/her hands.

For this study, the researchers from the University of Geneva Hospitals measured and compared the levels of bacterial contamination on physicians' hands and stethoscopes after conducting one physical examination. The researchers recruited 71 patients and three physicians. All of the physicians used sterile gloves and a sterile stethoscope when they conducted the physical examination.

After the physical checkup, the researchers tested two parts of the stethoscope, which were the tube and the diaphragm for the total number of bacteria present on the surface. The team also tested four areas of the physician's hands, which were the back, fingertips, and the thenar and hypothenar eminences, which are specific areas on the palm.

The researchers discovered that the diaphragm had higher levels of bacteria in comparison to all areas of the hand with the exception of the fingertips. The team also reported that the stethoscopes' tube was more contaminated than the back of the physician's hand. This study, which was the first to directly compare the levels of contamination between the stethoscope and the physician's hand, suggests that physicians should ideally disinfect their stethoscopes every time they use it.

"By considering that stethoscopes are used repeatedly over the course of a day, come directly into contact with patients' skin, and may harbor several thousands of bacteria collected during a previous physical examination, we consider them as potentially significant vectors of transmission," commented lead investigator Didier Pittet, MD, MS, Director of the Infection Control Program and WHO (World Health Organization) Collaborating Center on Patient Safety, University of Geneva Hospitals. "From infection control and patient safety perspectives, the stethoscope should be regarded as an extension of the physician's hands and be disinfected after every patient contact."

The study was published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

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