Researcher Didier Pittet, director of the Infection Control Program at the Geneva University Hospitals in Switzerland, wanted to find out how many bacteria can go from one patient to another if hands and instruments aren’t properly cleaned.
The result of the paper published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings review was that stethoscopes have as many bacteria as doctors’ palms; only the health professionals’ fingertips are more contaminated.
Doctors touch tens of people every day and the standard establishes for them to wash their hands after every exam. It is also recommended for them to clean their instruments, such as stethoscopes, with an antibacterial agent. However, the latter doesn’t seem to be a common practice.
Pittet’s team carried out several bacteria tests in the metal disc at the end of the stethoscope, the part that comes in contact with the skin, as well as the tubes that connect them to the earpieces. They also measured bacteria levels in four areas of the hand: two regions of the palm, fingertips and the back of the hand.
They did this after three doctors checked 71 patients using sterilized stethoscopes and gloves. Although fingertips turned out to be the most contaminated with bacteria, the stethoscope’s diaphragm was more contaminated than other parts of the doctors’ hands. As for the instrument’s tube, it carried more bacteria than the back of the hands.
According to a survey carried out in 2012 by US National Health Institutes, 76% of health professionals think stethoscopes could be the cause of infections, but only 25% said they disinfected the instrument after each use. However, the fact that stethoscopes carry bacteria doesn’t mean they generate infections.