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Nurse’s Guide to Stethoscopes

Nurse’s best ally in the clinical area is the ever dependable stethoscope. This tool of the trade has proven its value whenever nurses perform a physical assessment to patients. It’s like you can’t go to work without it.

This indispensable equipment has become a major status symbol for doctors and nurses in checking and monitoring patient’s physical condition. Lately, we see nurses use assorted latex-free stethoscopes in various colors to match their favorite scrubs. But there’s more in making the stethoscope part of your  fashion ensemble to consider when selecting this important assessment tool. This article will review the features and functions for the two major categories of stethoscopes.

Type of Stethoscopes

Generally, there are five types of stethoscopes, which is most popularly used by doctors and healthcare professionals. These include acoustic, electronic, fetal, noise-reduction and recordable. Briefly, we will explain what are these stethoscopes but the main focus of this article will be on acoustic and electronic types.

  • Recording stethoscopes are the one that has an additional aspect of recording along with normal functioning to record the direct audio output.
  • Fetal stethoscopes are also referred as fetoscopes; they are used to listen to the heartbeats of fetus present in pregnant women’s.
  • Noise-reduction stethoscopes (also known as noise-canceling stethoscopes) enables doctors to hear the sounds of the body in extremely loud situations

Acoustic Stethoscopes

Acoustic stethoscopes are the most commonly used by doctors and nurses. Available in an array of colors, it consists of:

  • Ear tips
  • Binaural (the curved metal pieces that connect the ear tips and tubing)
  • Tubing
  • Head or chest piece (usually a diaphragm, but sometimes a combination bell and a diaphragm).

Nurse's Guide to StethoscopesLet us examine each part and take note of the suggestions in choosing the right one for you:

  • Ear tips, also known as earpieces, are available in hard and soft materials. Check which type conforms best to the unique shape of your ear canals to keep out the extraneous noises of your busy medical/surgical unit. Make sure the ear tips are easy to remove for cleaning and replacement.
  • Tubing of the stethoscope is normally about 26 to 28 inches in length. Make sure the tubing is well insulated. Thicker tubing is usually better insulated than thin tubing. Listen with the earpieces in place and binaurals correctly angled while you rub the tubing near the chest piece between your thumb and forefinger. If the noise you hear is loud enough to interfere with the physiologic sounds you want to hear, you know the tubing isn’t well insulated.
  • The stethoscope head may be a combination diaphragm and bell that can be turned over, depending on which side you need. Both bells and diaphragms are available with vinyl coating around the rims to keep chilly metal parts from touching patients.

Electronic Stethoscopes

Electronic stethoscopes are battery operated, and most have a warning system to let you know when battery power is running low. Some have a small digital display to show battery status, heart rate, and volume level. Some even have ports or infrared devices to let you connect to another electronic stethoscope, computer, or personal digital assistant. This way, more than one person can listen at the same time. Or you can save files of a patient’s heart sounds to compare with future results or to use for teaching.

An electronic stethoscope showing its different parts.Cleaning Stethoscopes

It is a universal rule that anything we use with the patient can be a source or vehicle of infection transmission. Studies have found that stethoscopes are frequently the vectors for patient-to-patient disease transmission.  Therefore, it is just proper that we have to practice medical asepsis even to our most helpful tool – the stethoscope. The best way to clean a stethoscope—ear tips and all—is to wipe it down with one or more alcohol pads. Avoid alcohol gels because many contain lotions that can cause sediment to build up.

More “Stet” Tips

Stethoscope holders that clip to your waistband give you an alternative to wearing the stethoscope around your neck. And, yes, these holders also come in various colors. Because skin oils can ruin stethoscope tubing, a holder is a good option. (Or you can wear your stethoscope under your collar if you want it around your neck.) Name tags that can be fastened to stethoscope tubing are available in colors, and some can be engraved.

Reference: Beaumont, C. (2007). Choosing the best stethoscope. Nursing 2011, 37, 12-13. doi: 10.1097/01.NURSE.0000298014.81214.d8