The end of the stethoscope?

17 February 2014

As point-of-care ultrasound devices become more accurate, the future of the stethoscope is hanging in the balance, according to a recent editorial in Global Heart.

The piece, which asks 'are we living in the final days of the stethoscope?', runs through the respective histories of the stethoscope and the ultrasound - and suggests the latter could soon replace the former for good.

Few studiers have directly compared the two modalities, but there is no doubt the ultrasound is more technically advanced, with a greater range of diagnostic capabilities. And while, historically, ultrasound machines were large and cumbersome, they have become progressively smaller and easier to use without compromising their imaging quality.

The editorial, by Professor Jagat Narula and Associate Professor Bret Nelson, suggests that for the time being, pricing considerations are the limiting factor. Stethoscopes rarely cost more than a few hundred dollars, whereas the cost of an ultrasound device typically runs into the thousands. This can pose particular problems in developing countries.

As the price continues to tumble, however, it seems likely that a shift is underway. According to Narula and Nelson: "Certainly the stage is set for disruption; as LPs were replaced by cassettes, then CDs and .mp3s, so too might the stethoscope yield to ultrasound".

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