Stethoscopes as vectors of infections

Nathania Burrie

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

Nathania A J Burrie
Fifth Year Medicine (Undergraduate)
James Cook University, Cairns

Nathania has clinical and research interests in tropical infectious diseases and medical education. She has undertaken volunteer work on Palm Island, and was the Convener of the Northern Territory Intervention Panel Discussion in 2009. Her shortlist of medical careers includes emergency medicine and rural general practice.

Aim: To conduct a review of the literature to evaluate whether stethoscopes constitute a clinically significant vector of healthcareassociated infection, and to explore the behaviour, attitudes and beliefs about stethoscope hygiene amongst medical students. Methods: Section one: PubMed was searched for empirical studies written in English, published before 1 May 2010, dealing with colonisation rates of stethoscopes and self-reported frequency of stethoscope cleaning by healthcare staff. Thirty-one articles were systematically reviewed. Section two: Qualitative and quantitative cross-sectional study of medical students. A convenience sample of seventeen undergraduate medical students in years two, three and four were asked a series of thirteen questions exploring their knowledge, practice of and attitudes towards stethoscope hygiene. Results: The diaphragm and bell of stethoscopes are colonised with micro-organisms on average 87.3% of the time. On average, 14% of stethoscopes carry MRSA, and 16.5% carry gram-negative species. On average, 58.8% of doctors clean their stethoscope annually or never. Fifty-nine percent of students surveyed had never cleaned their stethoscope. Only 29% of students had ever been advised about stethoscope hygiene. Eighty-two percent of students felt senior colleagues had influenced their attitude (positive or negative) toward stethoscope hygiene. Conclusions: Stethoscopes potentially represent a moderate-to-high risk of infection transmission, particularly in vulnerable settings, yet stethoscope hygiene is rarely considered or practiced by doctors and medical students. Improving stethoscope hygiene in practice requires addressing the lack of formal education on the subject and the shortage of positive role models.