Are Stethoscopes All Set To Become A Thing Of The Past?

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They’ve been around for almost 200 years and it’s almost impossible to picture a doctor without a stethoscope. But it seems like all that is about to change as the new generation of hand-held ultrasound devices modeled on smartphones are predicted to replace stethoscopes in near future. Several studies that have been done, show that these ultrasound devices are able to perform the same task of helping to diagnose heart, lung and other conditions more accurately than the traditional stethoscope. With these devices, doctors can not only look at the heart, but all of the organs in the body. At this time, several manufacturers offer hand-held ultrasound machines that are only slightly larger than a deck of cards, with technology and screens modeled after modern smartphones.

The implications of this are tremendous. The ability to get a better look inside the body could reduce or prevent the likelihood of misdiagnoses and help doctors detect any abnormalities that need to be followed up with other tests.

Students observing surgery at Morogoro Hospital History of the stethoscope

Before the stethoscope was invented, doctors used to place their ear directly onto the patient’s chest to hear the heartbeat, a practice called auscultation.

French physician René Laennec invented the stethoscope in 1816 while he was looking for a way to “look” into his young female patient’s chest without actually putting his ear to her chest. The first avatar of the stethoscope was a sheet of paper rolled into a tube. Laennec found he could hear his patient’s lung sounds easily when he placed one end on her chest and put his ear to the other end.

Subsequent versions of the stethoscope included a simply wooden tube that was similar to an ear trumpet. The design underwent several changes and improvements over the course of the 19th century and finally evolved into the device that we see today and which allows for the monitoring of the heart, lungs, blood flow and the intestines. Electronic stethoscopes that amplify the sounds in the chest and produce graphs were developed only sometime in the 1970s.

Ushering in a new future

While some of the older doctors are nostalgic about the end of an era, proponents of the newer technology are enthusiastic about the tremendous potential they hold in their hands. The thought that ultrasound could diagnose heart, lung and other problems with a higher degree of accuracy as compared to the 200 year old stethoscope, opens the door to several possibilities. 

One of the reasons why these devices are not more commonly used is that the technology is relatively new. Physicians who completed their training long before handheld ultrasounds came onto the scene are unlikely to use the devices, but this is set to change with future generations of doctors. With ultrasounds slowly being accepted as the stethoscope of the 21st century, medical students are now being trained to use these devices right from the first years of medical school.

The other reason behind the limited use of the modern smartphone-style device is its high cost. However, that is not likely to deter its widespread use for very long. As the technology becomes more common, the prices will naturally drop, putting them within reach of most medical professionals.

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