The Ultimate Stethoscope Buyer’s Guide
In the market for a new stethoscope? Your stethoscope is the tool of your trade, and an investment in your practice – so it is important to learn and consider all your options. Make the most of your investment by understanding what features you really need for your job, and what characteristics to consider when buying. Whether you are a student buying your very first stethoscope, or an experienced professional looking to upgrade – read on for a complete overview.
First, we will review the basics of how stethoscopes work, and the parts they have in common.
Sound travels from chest piece of a stethoscope (placed on the patient), through the stem, tubing, ear tubes, and earpieces, to the clinician.
The basic parts of a stethoscope:
- Chest piece: Contains a bell and diaphragm, in various configurations for hearing both low and high- pitched sounds.
- Stem – the portion of the tubing that connects to the bell
- Tubing: this may be a single tube or dual tube – if you have a dual tube, make sure you can’t hear the tubing rubbing together when you listen.
- Headset – the metal (usually) part that attaches tubing to earpieces.
- Ear tube – usually metal, the pieces that connect tubing to earpieces.
- Earpieces (tips) – Rubber pieces of the stethoscope that are inserted into external ear canal for listening
Types of Stethoscopes
There are a lot of different names and styles out there. How do you know what is what? It’s not that confusing once you know what each one does!
Dual head stethoscope – Versatile and used to auscultate various sounds at different pitches. The larger side is the diaphragm and is used for higher frequencies, such as heart sounds. The smaller part is the bell, and it is used for lower frequencies, such as lung sounds.
Single head stethoscope – Primarily used for heart sounds, this type has a diaphragm only. It has a wide range of frequency of the diaphragm, and a clearer sound.
Electronic stethoscope – allows amplification of sounds for practitioners that have hearing difficulties, or simply for higher levels of detail when listening.
Specialty stethoscopes – Neonatal, pediatric, and fetal stethoscopes are specialty models, typically dual-head, with smaller sizes.
Disposable stethoscopes are serviceable and offer a way to avoid sharing equipment among patients that have transmittable diseases. They come in multi-packs and are intended for one-patient usage.
Brands of Stethoscopes
There are MANY brands of stethoscopes out there, some well-known and others more basic. When considering brands, it is helpful to look at reviews from other health professionals and information like warranty and availability of replacement parts.
Littman is a brand you will hear often, and they have many different product lines, colors, and styles. Parts are replaceable, and Littman offers generous warranties.
Prestige stethoscopes come in fun styles and colors and offer an excellent value! This is the brand I started off with in nursing school, and it served me well as I learned my assessment skills and took on my first healthcare job.
Assess your needs
Are you new to the medical field and just not sure what you need? There are a lot of choices out there – brands, sizes, levels of sensitivity.
Student stethoscopes: Don’t think that as a nursing student you need the cheapest one on the market. One of the most critical times in your career is when you are learning what to listen for, and what certain conditions sounds like. This is your reference point for the future. If you have trouble even using a stethoscope to get an accurate blood pressure, then you know that lung sounds are going to be tough. Make sure your investment is something that will be an excellent tool during your school years.
Cardiology and specialty stethoscopes: Going into a specialty area? You may need to invest in a specialty tool. Cardiology stethoscopes have a diaphragm that adjusts based on how hard you press it against the patient’s skin. Picking up those murmurs and subtle changes will be easier with a top-of-the line piece of equipment.
Wearability – are you accustomed to wearing your stethoscope around your neck? In a holder? Cargo pant pocket? Think about the tubing length you prefer, what you are used to, and the heaviness of the piece. These may seem like small details, but over 12 hours – they become bigger matters!
Get the stethoscope head engraved to personalize it, plus protect against loss or theft. (Unfortunately, it can happen!)
Clean your stethoscope as approved by the manufacturer, typically with 70% isopropyl alcohol, or a dedicated stethoscope cleaner. Clean it often – between each patient, and basically each time you would wash your hands.
Do not leave your stethoscope in a hot or cold car, or in any conditions that would cause the parts to degrade. Those of you that loop it over your car rearview mirror – I am talking to you! You will have to replace the tubing much sooner than normal.
Ok, now you have the structure, function, brands, and inside details on stethoscopes – you are an expert shopper ready to conquer the stethoscope world! Use those professional ears of yours to help your patients and look good doing it.