Stethoscopes carry broad range of bacteria — even after cleaning

Stethoscopes used in hospitals often contain a broad range of bacteria, according to a study published in Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology.

For the study, researchers analyzed the DNA of bacterial populations found on 40 stethoscopes in one hospital's intensive care unit, including 20 reusable scopes used by practitioners and 20 disposable stethoscopes used in patient rooms. Of the 20 disposable stethoscopes, half were clean and unused. Researchers swabbed stethoscopes both before and after they were cleaned via different methods.

Stethoscopes used by practitioners had the highest bacterial contamination levels, although researchers detected significant contamination on all 40 scopes. The stethoscopes contained a broad range of bacteria, including pathogens responsible for healthcare-associated infections. Staphylococcus bacteria were found on all stethoscopes and had the highest relative abundance on practitioner scopes.

While cleaning clinicians' scopes via standardized or practitioner-preferred methods reduced bacterial contamination levels, only two got as clean as new stethoscopes.

"Stethoscopes used in an ICU carry bacterial DNA reflecting complex microbial communities," researchers concluded. "Commonly used cleaning practices reduce contamination, but are only partially successful at modifying or eliminating these communities."

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