News & Insights

Your Institution May Harbor Infectious Stethoscopes

November 15, 2018

Karen Davis, MA, CPHRM

Your Institution May Harbor Infectious Stethoscopes

Could the healthcare professionals at your facility be carefully following hand hygiene protocols but still spreading bacteria via their stethoscopes? 

Authors of one study found that bacteria on stethoscope diaphragms they tested included methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). After a single use, the contamination level of the stethoscope matched that of the healthcare provider’s dominant hand.* But while physicians and nurses wash their hands between patients, they don’t usually clean their stethoscopes.

An exercise done at the Veterans Affairs Connecticut Healthcare System proves that stethoscopes aren’t consistently cleaned. Fifty physicians were unexpectedly asked to give researchers their stethoscopes. Slides showing results of the researchers’ examinations, which were viewed by participants on a big screen, revealed the stethoscopes were loaded with bacteria.† 

Many U.S. hospitals have adopted stethoscope cleaning policies; however, studies show compliance with such policies is low. In one study, fewer than 30 percent of the participants cleaned their stethoscopes after each use.‡

Fostering a stethoscope-hygiene habit—just like a hand hygiene habit—will help curb hospital-acquired infections. Two ways to increase professionals’ stethoscope cleaning between each use are to:

  1. Provide isopropyl alcohol wipes in every patient room.
  2. Advise use of ethanol-based hand sanitizer on stethoscope diaphragms as well as on hands before seeing each patient. 

Most healthcare professionals wouldn’t dream of omitting hand hygiene routines. Now they need to think of their stethoscopes as extensions of their hands.


*Longtin Y, Schneider A, Tschopp C, et al. Contamination of stethoscopes and physicians’ hands after a physical examination. Mayo Clinic Proceedings. 2014;89(3):291-299.
†Lagnado L. Hospitals step up the war on superbugs. Wall Street Journal. September 8, 2018.
‡Ghumman GW, Ahmad N, Pop-Vicas A, Iftikhar S. Stethoscope cleaning during patient care. Rhode Island Medical Journal. 2018;101(4):18-20.

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