Is Your Stethoscope Spreading Germs Between Patients?

How often do you clean and disinfect your stethoscope after it comes into contact with a patient’s skin? If you’re like most clinicians, you do this infrequently, if ever. Yet the common stethoscope may soon come under increasing scrutiny – or even become the target of next-generation infection control policies. (There are currently no guidelines requiring doctors and nurses to disinfect stethoscopes between patients.)

As a nurse, you play a vital role in minimizing the occurrence of hospital-acquired infections (HAIs).

In a recent study, researchers tested stethoscopes for the presence of active bacteria, including MRSA, after they were used to examine a patient. They measured the amount of bacteria that was picked up by both the tube and diaphragm of the stethoscope, as well as the bacteria that was transferred from the patient to the examining physician’s fingertips, palm, thumb, and back of the hand. And they discovered that the diaphragm of the stethoscope becomes colonized with bacteria quickly – acquiring more pathogens than any part of the doctor’s hand except the fingertips. The tube of the stethoscope can also acquire bacteria.

Perhaps most notably, the researchers found that MRSA was easily transferred from a patient’s skin to stethoscope. Presumably, this resistant bug could also then be passed along to the next patient, although this was not established by the study. (The researchers concede that the study’s value is limited because it drew on a small sample in only one hospital location.) The researchers conclude that:

Our findings provide strong evidence of the potential for stethoscope-mediated transmission of microorganisms and the need to systematically disinfect stethoscopes after each use. Consequently, our results may help convince physicians of the importance of proper and timely disinfection. Further studies will be required to better understand microorganism survival on stethoscopes as well as their transmissibility onto a recipient’s skin. Furthermore, additional studies are needed to better understand how stethoscopes can be efficiently and safely disinfected.

It’s likely that your employer doesn’t have a policy about disinfecting stethoscopes with alcohol between patients. Yet it’s something you can do, along with handwashing, to help protect your patients from infection.  And if you work in a hospital, you’ve likely seen a stepped-up focus on preventing infections in general.

As a nurse, you play a vital role in minimizing the occurrence of hospital-acquired infections (HAIs). In fact, CDC guidelines include nursing-specific interventions for the prevention of the most common types of HAIs. Many of these nursing interventions are considered core strategies – defined by the CDC as those that are backed by high levels of scientific evidence and have demonstrated feasibility. American Sentinel University has created a free e-book that compiles all the core nursing strategies for preventing hospital-acquired infections – you can download it today and refer to it over and over again.

And if you’re interested in planning, implementing, and evaluating infection prevention and control measures, consider making this in-demand field your career specialty. As a first step, you can develop new skills and empower yourself with knowledge through an online RN to MSN degree with a specialization in infection control from American Sentinel University, an innovative, accredited provider of online nursing degrees.