What is the medical instrument with more bacteria? Stethoscopes help diagnose and heal, but that essential tool of doctors also poses a significant potential for spreading germs from one patient to another, a new study reports.
The diaphragm of the stethoscope, the round piece that is placed in the patient's body, can be filled with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, such as the potentially lethal MRSA, the researchers found.
They discovered that a diaphragm picks up more bacteria during a patient's examination than any part of the doctor's hands, except for the tips of the fingers.
The stethoscope tube can also be filled with bacteria, and the level of contamination in both the diaphragm and the tube increases along with the amount of bacteria on the doctor's fingertips, the study said.
"Germs are acquired through the contact of the patient's skin with the stethoscope, in the same way that the hands are usually colonized with the germs of the patient," said the study's lead author, Dr. Didier Pittet. Director of the Infection Control Program of Hospitals of the University of Geneva, in Switzerland.
"The important implication is that the stethoscope, whether used by a doctor, a nurse, a nursing assistant or any other staff member, should be cleaned after each use," said Pittet, who also directs the Collaborative Center for Patient Safety of the World Health Organization of hospitals .
The potential for medical professionals to inadvertently spread disease with their tools or clothing is becoming an area of focus due to the concerns of "super germs" resistant to antibiotics.
Epidemiologists (experts who study the patterns and causes of diseases) raised the possibility that doctors may need to dispense with their traditional white coat and tie, as that clothing can be contaminated and not easily washed between a patient and other.
The new study compares the level of contamination of the hands of doctors and stethoscopes.
They found that the stethoscope and the tips of the fingers tended to be more contaminated than the other parts of the doctors' hands, both with bacteria in general and with MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) specifically. They also found that the level of contamination of the stethoscope increased with contamination of the hands.
"Hand hygiene is still the main measure for the prevention of infections in the hospital, and proper stethoscope management (cleaning it immediately after use) should be part of good patient care practices," Pittet said.