200 years and counting: The surprising persistence of the stethoscope

Despite dramatic advances in healthcare and technology over the past two centuries, most doctors still rely on a 200-year-old device to evaluate their patients: the humble stethoscope.

But why?

“When someone comes into your office saying they’re short of breath, you’re not going to just send them to an MRI without at least doing a physical exam first,” wrote Kaleigh Rogers in an article recently published online by Motherboard. “But new technologies are starting to give the stethoscope a run for its money.”

Those developing technologies—including handheld ultrasound, which allows doctors to see inside a patient’s chest from the comfort of their office—have some disadvantages that the simplistic stethoscope does not, according to Rogers.

“First of all … these devices cost between $5,000 and $10,000 (compared to $200 or less for a stethoscope),” she wrote. “They also are not quite refined enough to catch everything a stethoscope might.”

But perhaps the biggest reason the stethoscope persists, not only as an important diagnostic tool but as an iconic symbol of the medical profession, is the connection it represents between doctors and patients.

“The physical closeness between doctor and patient that stethoscopes require is a rare commodity in a time when doctors are often overworked and rushed,” Roger wrote.

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