A new study finds that many doctors do not practice proper stethoscope hygiene.
When you go to the doctor for a check up, your natural assumption is that the environment you’re walking into is a clean one. The doctor who is seeing you will often take instruments and tools out of sealed plastic packaging and dispose of them after use. But they never dispose of their stethoscopes after listening to your heart or breathing, do they? Have you ever seen a doctor clean his or her stethoscope?
A new quality improvement assessment done by the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC) has found that doctors and other medical practitioners rarely, if ever, employ proper hygienic measures on their stethoscopes between uses. This is, of course, despite the fact that the guidelines for infection control clearly state that any non-disposable medical tools must be properly cleaned after each use.
The professionals at APIC say that not cleaning stethoscopes can be compared to not washing one’s hands after seeing a patient. The instrument comes into contact with, at the very least, the patient’s clothing, which could contain traces of infectious bacteria. If the instrument is not cleaned after the visit, this infection could be transferred to the next patient who comes in. A recent study done in Switzerland has found that stethoscopes even have the ability to transfer resistant bacteria between patients.
The new report has found that proper disinfection methods are very rarely used between patient visits, meaning the same stethoscope is used over and over throughout the day without having been cleaned a single time. The report observed the cleaning practices of a residency program over four weeks at a teaching hospital. Their initial observations found that not once among all the healthcare practitioners in the facility were the stethoscopes cleaned properly.
With the results of this most recent report, the APIC team set out to reeducate the medical practitioners at this facility about the importance of proper stethoscope hygiene. The emphasis of these programs was reminding doctors and clinicians that the stethoscope must be cleaned between every patient visit. The team even dropped obvious hints that they would be checking in with the staff to see their progress. Despite this, there were no changes—the staff still did not clean the stethoscopes.
The team at APIC were both surprised and discouraged by this turn of events. The need for stethoscope hygiene has been clear for many years and is a part of medical school checklists for students working to become doctors. The professionals responsible for this report say that more research will be needed in order to understand the best methods of getting this point across to doctors. They would remind patients and medical practitioners alike that cleaning one’s stethoscope is just as important as washing one’s hands.
Related: Beware The Stethoscope: Germ Alert