Stethoscopes: New Culprit in MRSA Transmission

Stethoscopes may be the next target for cracking down on methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.

A study in Mayo Clinic Proceedings found that after a physician visits a patient, their stethoscopes are more contaminated than certain parts of their hand.

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Researchers took cultures of the bacteria on the hands and stethoscopes of physicians after a standard physical examination. They collected cultures from the stethoscope diaphragm and tube and physicians' fingertips, either side of the palm and the back of the hand.

Both the stethoscope diaphragm and tube had a higher total bacterial count than either side of the palm and the back of the hand. Only the fingertips had a higher average bacterial count.

When researchers screened exclusively for MRSA bacteria, average counts were similar for the stethoscope diaphragm and the fingertips, suggesting physicians transfer bacteria to their stethoscope when they touch it, according to a Smithsonian report on the study.

Didier Pittet, MD, lead physician on the World Health Organization's Global Patient Safety Challenge initiative and researcher in the study, suggested the high levels of stethoscope contamination may stem from hand hygiene practices.

"Physicians forget to clean their hands quite frequently, even in the best places," Dr. Pittet said in the Smithsonian report. "When they forget to clean their hands, they certainly forget to disinfect their stethoscope. And from my experience, even those who are really good models of hand hygiene likely forget to clean their stethoscopes most of the time."

Dr. Pittet suggests more research is needed on understanding the risk of bacterial transmission from an unsterilized stethoscope.

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