If any single instrument is the symbol of a health care professional, it is the stethoscope. A doctor or nurse uses a stethoscope to check for abnormalities in your heart, your blood pressure, your lungs and other parts of the body. It is part of the uniform, hanging over the neck of a health care provider, easily accessible as he or she moves from patient to patient.

This is why a new study focused on the hygiene of the typical stethoscope may be upsetting to many who rely on the cleanliness of their doctors and nurses to prevent the spread of infection. When a Georgia doctor stops by your bedside and reaches for the stethoscope on his or her shoulder, you may want to ask a few questions before the examination proceeds.

Why won’t your doctor take this step?

Nearly every stethoscope is covered in bacteria, according to the conclusions of a recent study. Physicians have heard warnings of the dangers of unsterilized medical instruments, but few have taken steps to change their unhealthy habits. When a doctor places a stethoscope on your skin, that same surface may have touched dozens or hundreds of other patients, some with communicable diseases, without going through the simple process of sanitation.

Research shows that a stethoscope can become as contaminated as a doctor or nurse’s bare hands after touching a patient, yet almost none of the doctors who responded to a survey took the time to clean their scopes between patient examinations. This leaves you vulnerable to dangerous and potentially deadly viruses and bacteria that can survive on surfaces for hours or days.

A simple procedure

Decontaminating a stethoscope is not a complicated process. It takes no special equipment or expensive solution. In fact, the same alcohol-based hand cleaner doctors and nurses use to sanitize their hands works to effectively remove bacteria from a stethoscope, so there is no reason why medical professionals cannot clean their instruments at the same time they sanitize their hands before touching you. Other options include alcohol wipes or any ethanol-based cleaner.

Despite training, education and case studies, medical professionals seem disinterested in taking this important measure to protect you from infections. Nevertheless, hospital-acquired infections, including the deadly MRSA organism, remain among the leading complications for patients. Consistent and thorough cleaning of a stethoscope can drastically reduce your chances of suffering a life-threatening infection.