If you ask Dr. Eric Topol, the classic stethoscope has got to go.
It “was OK for 200 years,” the world-renowned cardiologist told the Associated Press in the latest story to announce the stethoscope’s death knell. But “we need to go beyond that. We can do better.” He calls it nothing more than a pair of “rubber tubes.”
It’s a refrain he’s been repeating for years, declaring back in 2011 that he hadn’t used one in two years.
Instead, he argued it’s time for high-tech handheld devices that are also pressed against the chest but rely on ultrasound technology, artificial intelligence and smartphone apps instead of doctors’ ears to help detect leaks, murmurs, abnormal rhythms and other problems in the heart, lungs and elsewhere.
Proponents say these devices are nearly as easy to use as stethoscopes and allow doctors to watch the body in motion and actually see things such as leaky valves. “There’s no reason you would listen to sounds when you can see everything,” said Topol, director and founder of the Scripps Research Translational Institute.
But to paraphrase Mark Twain, news of the traditional stethoscope’s death is a bit exaggerated.
Old-fashioned stethoscopes seem to be holding their own in the U.S., with dollar sales roughly equal for both manual and electronic devices, over the past five years, according to Grand View Research, and projected to stay that way until 2025. And with the high-tech stethoscopes’ much higher price tags, analog ones would seem to be leading in numbers sold. Conventional stethoscopes typically cost under $200, compared with at least a few thousand dollars for some of the high-tech devices.
Chicago pediatrician Dr. David Drelicharz, who has been in practice for just over a decade, knows the allure of newer devices but offers a reason why the latest devices aren’t taking over yet. Until the price comes down, the old stalwart “is still your best tool,” Drelicharz said. Once you learn to use the stethoscope, he said, it “becomes second nature.”
“During my work hours in my office, if I don’t have it around my shoulders,” he said, “it’s as though I was feeling almost naked.”