Stethoscope becomes the heart of controversy

By Matt Kuhrt

The relationship between doctors and their stethoscopes may be more romantic than practical at this point, according to an article in the Washington Post. What that means with regard to the future of the tool itself, or even for the future of medical practice, remains cloudy.

There may be no more iconic tool in the doctor's arsenal than the stethoscope, but that has long ceased to correlate with a doctor's capability to use the tool effectively. Moreover, research suggests that doctors' capabilities regarding auscultation stop improving as early as the third year of medical school.

Suggestions that technological advancements could render the stethoscope obsolete aren't new, as handheld ultrasound machines were already making waves in 2012, FierceHealthIT reported at the time. That technology has become more portable, and when coupled with the widespread availability of echocardiograms some doctors have gone so far as to pronounce the stethoscope dead. Others, such as Sanjiv Kaul, M.D., quoted by the Post, declare the ongoing use of obsolete technology a product of physicians' general tendency toward professional conservatism.

Despite the relatively easy accuracy echocardiograms and modern imaging tests provide, the idea that auscultation ought to be wholly supplanted by new technologies doesn't fly with W. Reid Thompson, M.D., an associate professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He encourages students to practice listening and has collected a library of sounds for those inclined to do so.

The other concern comes from removing one of the last vestiges of close contact between doctor and patient. As doctors increasingly express frustration at the ways in which medical practice removes elements of direct patient interaction from the mix, anything that compromises the delicate, often intangible balance between cold efficiency and the art of healing is liable to cause alarm and debate.

To learn more:
- read the Washington Post article