Physicians rarely clean stethoscopes between patients, study finds

Clinicians participating in a quality improvement pilot project failed to sanitize stethoscopes between patient interactions, even after educational interventions, according to a study published in the American Journal of Infection Control.

Here are four things to know.

1. CDC infection control guidelines require reusable medical equipment — like stethoscopes — to undergo disinfection between patients.

"Stethoscopes are used repeatedly throughout the day and become contaminated after each patient exposure, so they must be treated as potential vectors of transmission," said Linda Greene, RN, 2017 president of APIC. "Failing to disinfect stethoscopes could constitute a serious patient safety issue similar to ignoring hand hygiene."

2. Researchers initiated a quality improvement pilot project to improve hand hygiene and stethoscope sanitation compliance at a tertiary care Veterans Affairs teaching hospital. The research team educated clinicians on the importance of hand and stethoscope hygiene and hinted they might monitor the practice during the follow-up phase of the quality improvement project. They also placed reminder posters and boxes of alcohol swabs in clinical areas.

3. The researchers, who were also physicians at the hospital, monitored hand and stethoscope hygiene at the start of a four-week rotation for medical students, residents and attending physicians. The researchers identified zero occurrences of clinicians cleaning their stethoscopes with alcohol swabs, alcohol gel or disinfectant wipes both before and after the educational interventions.

4. Hand hygiene compliance increased from 58 percent to 63 percent following the intervention methods, a change researchers noted was not statistically significant.

"While the project had several limitations, it does highlight how rarely stethoscope hygiene is performed. Standard education may not be the answer to this problem," the researchers wrote. "Stethoscope hygiene implementation will need more consistent efforts to change culture and habits. We believe that stethoscope hygiene should be included in all hospital hand hygiene initiatives, along with increased accountability."

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