Stethoscope covers allow doctors and nurses to personalize their tools, which can prevent other busy medical professionals from snatching them in hectic work environments. These covers give stethoscopes personality, but they serve a much more important service: they provide a layer of protection against scratches and dings.
Called “nurse bling,” by some, covers are more popular than ever thanks to many different websites. These sites allow designers to sell directly to customers. However, there is a downside to this trend, and it has some experts wondering whether stethoscope covers are a good idea.
Bacteria Endemic to the ER
The typical emergency room contains more bacteria than the average person’s bathroom, per square foot. What’s more, patients who go to the ER for treatment of a gash or broken bone can easily become vectors of disease themselves. Doctors and nurses, despite obsessive hand sanitization practices, sometimes get sick as well.
Sepsis, characterized by a systemic immune response to bacterial growth in the blood, has been increasing in the U.S. and around the world. Systemic inflammatory response syndrome has become such a concern that the National Association for Healthcare Quality issued new guidelines in 2014 that outline steps to identify patients who may be suffering from sepsis. Early detection of the condition often results in recovery, and it ensures that patients who visit the ER with a large gash do not contract a bacterial infection via casual contact or a doctor’s stethoscope.
Bacteria were among the first life forms to inhabit the Earth, and they have evolved to exist on nearly every surface imaginable. Generations of bacteria can feed off the oils left behind by a single touch, and one bacterium can have millions of offspring. Stethoscope covers provide an ideal breeding ground for these minute organisms because of the large surface area they provide. Many of these covers have decorative creases and are composed of loose fabric. Moreover, many more bacteria can live in a stethoscope cover than could subsist on the stethoscope tubes alone.
When a doctor or nurse makes contact with one of these covers and then touches the diaphragm or chest piece of the stethoscope, they are effectively transferring hoards of bacteria to the business end of the device. Likewise, doctors can transfer bacteria from a patient to their stethoscope cover with a single touch. While doctors use alcohol throughout the day on their hands and stethoscope diaphragms, bacteria can survive on the stethoscope by breeding deep in the microscopic folds within the epoxy diaphragm itself.
Because alcohol evaporates almost immediately, not all bacteria are neutralized. A study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings found that a typical doctor’s stethoscope is more contaminated than the back of their own hand. The Swiss researchers took samples from over 450 sources, including 83 patients. They took samples from doctors who were wearing gloves, and from some that were not. The stethoscope diaphragm was found to be the most contaminated component of the device in virtually all cases, although researchers did find microorganisms on the tubes as well.
Limitations of Sanitization Measures
Doctors and nurses must remove their stethoscope covers each time they want to give the tool a good wipe-down, and some experts contend that stethoscopes will be sanitized less often. Additionally, medical personnel can’t utilize UV sanitization stations unless their stethoscopes are cover free. A gas chamber is the only proven way to effectively sanitize a stethoscope and cover, but these devices require several minutes to kill the microbes present.
Stethoscope covers provide a means for medical personnel to personalize their diagnostic tools, but they can spread bacteria—bacteria which are becoming resistant to drugs at a record pace.