Beyond the White Coat

Toy stethoscopes


Many of my articles are inspired when I observe discordant things juxtaposed. As we move deep into winter, once again I am confronted with the issue of infection control in the office and on the ward. Hospitals have gowns, gloves, masks, and toy stethoscopes. My outpatient offices rarely used more than the sink. In urgent care clinic, each evening I would swab three or four throats for strep, with one or two turning positive. I thought nothing of it, other than being glad when gagging a patient that I wear glasses. In the hospital, I must gown, glove, and mask for a patient with strep throat. The variations in practice between hospitals (I’ve been credentialed in 30) do not make me confident in the evidence base for infection control practices. I mentioned the Red Book to a second-year resident last week. He said he had seen it on a shelf but never actually used it.

One Christmas, I gave my 2-year-old niece a toy doctor’s bag. It had a stethoscope. The toddler knew what it was for. Fortunately, her other uncle’s German shepherd, although twice her size, was an amenable patient. In the hospital, I am confronted with similar isolation stethoscopes in rooms with infants who have bronchiolitis.

In medical school, I was taught that the most important part of a stethoscope is between the ears. I believe that statement is true, but in a similar way to how I choose wines. My palate can’t tell the difference between a $15 and a $50 bottle of wine, so buying more expensive wine is a waste. However, a $3 bottle of wine is clearly inferior, if not undrinkable. There are oenophiles (one a distant cousin in Norway) who have trained their palates to tell the difference in wines, just as there are audiophiles who support the sales of $1,000 stereo speakers. Some fraction of those snobs may have justification. So, if cardiologists have strong opinions on stethoscopes, I won’t begrudge them their choice of a more expensive model. Their tastes do not mean that the average person should spend that much on wine, speakers, or stethoscopes. I will assert that there was a time when I could tell a day or two in advance that my otoscope bulb was going to burn out. The color balance was wrong. I carried a pocket otoscope for a few years when rounding in the hospital, but never found it as accurate as my original one. Every craftsman gets accustomed to their best tools.

A professional should be aware of the minimum quality of tool needed to get the job done.

Toy isolation stethoscopes ($3 each retail in bulk) add nothing to my discernment of an infant with bronchiolitis who is distressed, so I consider that equipment a waste of money and polluting to the environment. I typically use my stethoscope and foam it on leaving the room. There is evidence that either foam or alcohol pads are effective1 in killing germs, but no proof that this hygiene makes a difference clinically.2 The myriad researchers who have published about stethoscope contamination have stopped at padding their academic portfolios with something easy to publish, which basically is a high school science project using agar plates. They then make insinuations about policy, without any cost-benefit analysis. They really haven’t been bothered enough to advance the science of clinical medicine and actually measure a clinical impact of these policies. It is a corruption of science created by the publish-or-perish environment.

One survey found that 45% of physicians disinfect their stethoscope annually or less. Laundering of white coats follows a similar pattern, which is why the British National Health Service banned lab coats for physicians 10 years ago. No ties or long sleeve shirts either. I am smug knowing that my sartorial sense was ahead of my time in this regard.

The quality-improvement work of Ignaz Semmelweis should be required reading for all physicians. The control chart3 he published on puerperal fever in Vienna in the 1840s is spectacular. Infection control is important. Modern medical science cannot produce a similar control chart to justify the amount of dollars spent annually on gowns, gloves, masks, and toy stethoscopes. Sad.

Dr. Kevin T. Powell, a pediatric hospitalist and clinical ethics consultant in St. Louis.

Dr. Kevin T. Powell

Dr. Powell is a pediatric hospitalist and clinical ethics consultant living in St. Louis. Email him at


1. Am J Infect Control. 2009 Apr;37(3):241-3.

2. J Hosp Infect. 2015 Sep;91(1):1-7.


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