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Ambulance Stethoscopes May Expose Patients To Bacteria

March 17, 2009

A new study shows that stethoscopes carried by ambulance crews are not always cleaned as often as they should be and may be exposing some patients to drug-resistant bacteria, the New York Times reported.

The report examined the stethoscopes used by emergency medical services workers in New Jersey, noting that a significant number carried methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, bacteria known as MRSA that are resistant to standard drugs.

The report was published in the current issue of Prehospital Emergency Care.

The researchers said that some of the ambulance workers did not even recall the last time the instruments had been cleaned.

It’s still unclear how big a threat MRSA on a stethoscope posed to a patient, according to the study’s lead author, Dr. Mark A. Merlin of Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

However, he said that as incidents of infection by the bacteria become more common, and with the possibility that it will become more resistant to antibiotics, it is important to reduce its spread.

Ambulance crews arriving at an emergency department over a 24-hour period were asked by researchers to have their stethoscopes tested. They were also asked when the instruments had last been cleaned.

The report showed that among the 50 stethoscopes reviewed, 16 had the bacteria.

Experts say a simple alcohol swab is usually enough to kill the bacteria.

The report noted that the concept of cleaning an entire ambulance after every patient is not practical yet doesn’t require very much energy.

“Cleaning a stethoscope is not labor-intensive, does not require much time, and does not require any special equipment beyond currently stocked items.”

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