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The Ultimate Guide to Buying the Best Stethoscope for Your Practice

When buying a stethoscope, you must consider your specialty-specific needs, the balance of cost and quality, fit, length and much more.

Stethoscopes may be one of the most common pieces of medical equipment, but that doesn’t mean buying the right stethoscope is simple. With quality ones costing $100 or more, it’s a big decision whose repercussions can last your career.

This guide will walk you through important considerations when shopping for a stethoscope, from the device’s history to more minor details to consider.

History of the Stethoscope

Derived from the Greek words “stethos,” meaning chest, and “skopein,” meaning to view or see, stethoscopes originated in 1816 when French physician Rene Laennec rolled up a piece of paper into a tube and discovered that it provided a better sound than simply placing one’s ear against a patient’s chest.

A quarter-century later, George P. Camman created the first two-eared version. The design underwent a few changes from there, but none were as acoustically effective as Dr. David Littman’s. He patented his invention in the early 1960s. Today, Littmann is still the most trusted stethoscope brand in the industry.

Parts of the Stethoscope

Essential aspects of a standard stethoscope include the earpiece, the tubing and length, the chest piece, and the shape. Stethoscopes now come in a choice of standard or electric. Although electric stethoscopes are state-of-the-art and look high-tech, they’re not necessary for everyone.

Stethoscope Earpieces

Typically a standard stethoscope will have two earbuds made of either silicone or rubber. Finding the correct fit will determine the quality of the sound the wearer hears. Depending on the brand and quality of the stethoscope, the device may come with different sized earpieces to ensure the correct fit. (If they are not included, you can always buy a set of them online. They’re usually no more than $20.) Your ear pieces should fit snugly but shouldn’t be so tight that they impede your hearing or drown out the patient’s internal sounds.

Stethoscope Tubing and Length

Stethoscopes come in various sizes, usually between 22 and 31 inches (55 to 80 cm); the most common length is 27 inches (70 cm). For some clinicians, length doesn’t matter, but remember that the shorter the stethoscope, the closer to the patient you are. Most HCPs find that 27 inches provides enough length that both patient and provider can maintain their personal space.

Another factor to consider: your back health which is especially important for nurses! You might not have to lean over as much with a longer length.

And if you’re worried that longer stethoscopes might lend to worse sound quality, don’t be. National Institutes of Health research doesn’t bear out this common assumption.

Tubing quality is another important consideration. Most moderately priced stethoscopes ($60 to $80) have lasting tubing. Cheaper options ($15 to $30) may have thinner material, be more susceptible to cracking and wear out sooner.

Stethoscope Chest Piece: Diaphragm and Bell

There are two important parts of the chest piece of a stethoscope: the diaphragm and the bell. The diaphragm is flat and picks up high-frequency sounds, such as those made by the heart, lungs, or bowels. It’s also great for obtaining a blood-pressure reading with the help of a sphygmomanometer. Some basic stethoscopes, in fact, only have a single-sided chest piece with a diaphragm.

In dual-sided versions, the bell is the smaller, curved side of the chest piece. It excels at picking up low-frequency sounds, such as heart murmurs or bruits, and high-frequency sounds in pediatric patients.

One of the most remarkable innovations with these pieces is that they now come in hypoallergenic material in some models. Freezing metal against a patient’s bare chest could soon become a thing of the past.

Stethoscope Shape

Most stethoscopes are two-eared and comprise a single tube with a round chest piece at the end. But there are other shapes to choose from. For example, if you conduct a lot of blood-pressure readings, consider one with a flatter, more oval chest piece, as this shape can more easily slide under a blood-pressure cuff. Note that chest-piece shapes do not usually affect the sound quality, so feel free to choose based on personal preference.

The Best Stethoscope for Your Profession and Specialty

Depending on your work field, you may have different requirements for a stethoscope. For example, some clinicians only need a simple stethoscope to pick up essential heart, lung, and bowel sounds. Others, especially those specializing in cardiology, need to hear a greater range of frequencies only audible with a more advanced device.

The Best Stethoscopes for RNs

You should consider a good-quality, basic stethoscope if you’re a registered nurse in a hospital or an outpatient setting. The 3M Littmann Classic III is a top-rated, mid-priced stethoscope that will suit your needs for basic assessments — and it will last.

If you work in cardiology, consider buying a stethoscope with your specialty in its name. The 3M Littmann Cardiology IV has over 2,000 five-star reviews on Amazon. One nurse praised its acoustic sensitivity and sound clarity, no matter how much background noise was present. It’s pricey, but it will allow you to hear subtle changes in arrhythmias and more.

The Best Stethoscopes for Advanced Practice Clinicians

PAs and APRNs make autonomous treatment decisions more often than RNs. For this responsibility, a top-of-the-line stethoscope, like the 3M Littmann Master Cardiology, will be useful. It doesn’t have a bell, but you can tune the diaphragm to pick up low or high-frequency sounds with a simple pressure change. The Master Cardiology also includes an adapter for infant or pediatric auscultation, costing around $200.

The Best Cardiology Stethoscopes

Regardless of your title, if you work in cardiology, you can’t go wrong with the 3M Littmann Master Cardiology. But if you don’t want to spend $200, consider the 3M Littmann Cardiology IV. You will save $50 without sacrificing device capabilities or sound quality.

Best Stethoscopes for Nursing or PA Students

Nursing and PA school teaches students about various populations and specialties, so a versatile stethoscope is crucial. For example, the 3M Littmann Lightweight II SE stethoscope will work well, thanks to its tunable diaphragm. Use it for physical assessments, diagnoses, and patient monitoring. Prices start around $68.

MDF is another popular brand among students because it’s more affordable. Most of their products run from $25 to $55.

The Best Stethoscopes for Pediatric Providers

Imagine yourself as a scared, sick child being poked and prodded in an unfamiliar environment. For these kiddos, a less intimidating stethoscope can make a big difference. The adorable ADC Adscope Adimals 618 Pediatric Stethoscope’s interchangeable animal designs for the chest piece will prompt many smiles. Just be aware that a few Amazon reviewers noted the sound quality wasn’t as good as with other stethoscopes, and it’s less effective on teenagers.

If you’re not as concerned with aesthetics, several other pediatric stethoscope options exist. The 3M Littmann Classic II Pediatric is the most popular for its balance of cost ($80), sound quality, and durability. If catching even the subtlest sounds amid tons of background noise is crucial to your job, then consider the Welch-Allyn-Harvey pediatric stethoscope. Around $420, it’s one of the most expensive stethoscopes out there, but you won’t need to buy another one for the rest of your career.

The Best Electric Stethoscopes

If you need an electronic stethoscope, hopefully, your employer will reimburse you! They can cost up to 10 times the amount of a standard stethoscope. The Thinklabs One Digital Stethoscope is around $600, only has a diaphragm, and works with headphones. On the relatively affordable end, the Eko CORE Digital Stethoscope costs $325.

Tips for Buying a Stethoscope

Buying a new stethoscope may be intimidating, but here are a few tips and tricks to finding your perfect match.

Don’t Go Overboard

If you are in school or training, ask your instructors for recommendations. You discover you can borrow one. If you’re working, learn about the type of stethoscope you need and get one that will last — but that doesn’t mean buying the most expensive one out there. Unfortunately, stethoscope theft is common. Chances are you’ll leave it at work at least once and won’t always get it back.

Choose a Color That Will Stand Out

The most common colors of stethoscopes are black and blue, which means your stethoscope will look like 65% of your coworkers’ if you choose these colors. In addition to picking a stand-out color, consider engraving it with your name.

Consider Your Retailer Carefully

If you ask around, you may learn a local store provides discounts for health professionals or your employer. There are also plenty of online retailers that cut prices during Nurses’ Week and other holidays. Just check the reviews before making an online purchase since you can’t try it on — Amazon contains a wealth of knowledge. And don’t buy from a site you’ve never heard of without additional research. The reason for their low prices could be that they sell knock-off devices.

Don’t Forget the Carrying Case

Stethoscope carrying cases are practical — they keep your device clean and protected and are another opportunity to show off your personality. They come in different colors and patterns and rarely cost over $20.

Buying a stethoscope can be stressful whether you’re just starting your healthcare career or a seasoned HCP. But knowing the basics outlined here and doing a little research on your own will ensure that you don’t have to go through this process again for quite some time.

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