If you can’t remember the last time you cleaned your stethoscope, you’re not alone — but you also might be putting your patients at risk. In the workplace, stethoscopes are essentially an extension of your hand, which is often covered with bacteria and other easily-spreadable germs. Healthcare providers are required to wash their hands before and after interacting with patients, but there are no requirements in place when it comes to cleaning your stethoscope.
A study in the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America highlights the long-term effects of disregarding stethoscope hygiene. Like many other small instruments used in healthcare settings, stethoscopes are loaded with bacteria, including some that can detract from infection-control measures.
Using molecular sequencing, the researchers on the study were able to view a complete image of bacteria on 40 stethoscopes, all used within an ICU unit. Their analysis showed that each of the 40 stethoscopes had been contaminated with a diverse set of bacteria, including Staphylococcus, responsible for staph infections. Other infection-inducing bacteria, such as Pseudomonas and Acinetobacter, were also found on the stethoscopes in small quantities.
After the researchers cleaned an additional set of stethoscopes, using either hydrogen peroxide wipes, alcohol swabs or bleach wipes, the population of bacteria reduced. However all cleaning methods consistently failed to bring the stethoscopes back to the level of a clean, new one.
Although the researchers couldn’t conclude whether patients become ill after coming in contact with a provider’s stethoscope, they recommended practitioners adhere to a standardized set of infection-control procedures, including regular decontamination of stethoscopes and other equipment. They also encouraged patients to request that providers wash their hands and clean all equipment before being treated.
Littmann Stethoscopes, a leading brand for healthcare providers nationwide, provides the following tips for cleaning your stethoscope:
- Wipe your stethoscope with a 70 percent isopropyl alcohol solution.
- Do not use hand sanitizer as a cleaning agent as there are additives that may damage parts of the stethoscope.
- Do not immerse your stethoscope in any liquid, or subject it to any sterilization process.
- Keep your stethoscope away from extreme heat, cold, solvents and oils.
- Tunable diaphragms can be removed from the chest-piece and their surfaces wiped with alcohol or soapy water. Dry all parts thoroughly before reassembly.
- Ear tips can be removed from the ear tubes for thorough cleaning.
Vincent R. Knecht, John E. McGinniss, Hari M. Shankar, Erik L. Clarke, Brendan J. Kelly, Ize Imai, Ayannah S. Fitzgerald, Kyle Bittinger, Frederic D. Bushman, Ronald G. Collman. Molecular analysis of bacterial contamination on stethoscopes in an intensive care unit. Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology, 2018; 1 DOI: 10.1017/ice.2018.319