Stethoscopes might be an unrecognized source of bacterial contamination. Hospital acquired infections are responsible for roughly 100,000 deaths each year. Healthcare workers have been admonished to wash their hands thoroughly between patients to reduce the risk of infection. Although this effort is essential, it has not eliminated the problem.
A new study suggests that stethoscopes can carry dangerous bacteria, including Clostridium difficile or C. diff and methicillin-resistant Staphyloccus aureus or MRSA. Researchers at the Cleveland VA demonstrated that both kinds of germs are readily transferred to and from stethoscopes. The investigators concluded that, “Our findings suggest that stethoscopes may be an underappreciated vector for transmission of pathogens.” They suggest that it might be helpful if healthcare workers cleaned their stethoscopes after examining patients by rubbing with pads or gauze containing alcohol. Perhaps patients should ask doctors and nurses whether they have cleaned their hands AND their stethoscopes before each examination.
[Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology, Jan. 2012]
For a possible solution to the problem, see this entry on Cleanstethoscope