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Germ-Laden Stethoscopes May Spread Nasty Bacteria

Cleansing after each use should be part of good patient care, study says
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They found that the stethoscope and the fingertips tended to be more contaminated than all other parts of the physicians' hands, both with bacteria in general and MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) specifically. They also found that the contamination level of the stethoscope increased with contamination of the hands.

"Although infection cross-transmission from one patient to another has not been demonstrated in this study, it seems clear that staff and doctor stethoscopes constitute an extension of their fingertips in terms of risk for germ's cross-transmission," Pittet said.

"Hand hygiene remains the primary measure for the prevention of hospital infections, and appropriate handling of stethoscopes -- their cleansing immediately after use -- should be part of good patient care practices," Pittet said.

The study results are published Feb. 27 in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

Leaders of two primary care medical societies said they weren't surprised by the study findings, and called on doctors to practice better hygiene.

"The numbers are alarmingly low on the frequency of handwashing among physicians," said Dr. Charles Cutler, chair of the American College of Physicians Board of Regents. "We've got to get it to 100 percent between patients. Anything less than that is not good enough."

Medical schools emphasize that students should regularly wash their white coat and tie, and wipe down their stethoscopes between patients, said Dr. Daniel Spogen, chair of family and community medicine at the University of Nevada School of Medicine and a member of the American Academy of Family Physicians' board of directors.

"Being a practicing physician, there are things that we carry from room to room between exams, and the stethoscope is the main one," Spogen said. "We encourage them to douse their stethoscopes between patients, but some days when you're moving quickly between patients, you sometimes can forget."

Cutler and Spogen said patients should feel free to speak up and ask health care professionals to wipe down a stethoscope before using it. Don't worry about offending your doctor, they said.

"If I were a patient, I would want to be certain that took place," Cutler said. "If the doc is offended, the doc better go back to school."

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