Digital vs. Traditional Stethoscopes: A Comparative Analysis
Technology has brought many modern advancements into the healthcare industry. These developments make it possible to improve diagnostics, testing, and treatments. At the same time, there are also instances when traditional tools and methods can be invaluable for doctors and patients.
For example, there are situations when digital stethoscopes can be quite useful. But doctors still reach for traditional stethoscopes, depending on their preferences and the circumstances. In this article, we compare digital and traditional stethoscopes, showing the advantages and disadvantages of each.
What Is a Digital Stethoscope?
Healthcare providers use stethoscopes so they can hear the sounds made by the lungs, heart, and other internal areas, such as the intestinal tract. They are also used for other evaluations, such as checking blood pressure.
When the diaphragm of a traditional stethoscope is placed on the patient’s skin, the sounds within the body cause vibrations and pressure waves that send signals through the hollow tubing and into the stethoscope's earpieces. With digital stethoscopes, the acoustic sounds are converted into electronic signals, helping to amplify the sounds so the healthcare provider can listen with more detail. Additionally, the signals can be transmitted to a computer for additional processing.
One of the benefits of digital stethoscopes is that it can be much easier to hear slight changes in the sound waves, including murmurs and other details that can provide more information for the doctor to use. Popular digital stethoscope brands include 3M Littmann Core, Thinklabs One, Stemoscope, Adscope 658, Eko Core 500, and Cardionics E-Scope.
There are unique features and functions for the various brands of digital stethoscopes. So, it can be helpful to research your options before deciding on the ideal brand and model to buy.
Pros of a Digital Stethoscope
Are you trying to decide which stethoscope is right for you? Here are a few reasons why healthcare providers like to use digital stethoscopes:
Not only can high-end digital stethoscopes amplify the sounds by 40x – 60x more than traditional stethoscopes, but the digital features make it easier to understand the patient’s health nuances. In fact, digital stethoscopes are 96% more efficient in improving audio clarity and the loudness of the sounds.
Digital settings allow you to make adjustments to the frequency range, usually on the device directly or through a mobile app. Since specific frequencies are emitted through cardiovascular sounds, digital stethoscopes can be essential in sensitive medical environments – including cardiology, critical care, neonatal, and more.
Since many digital stethoscopes can be linked with mobile applications, healthcare providers have more control of the information coming through the stethoscope. Apps enhance the features and performance of the digital stethoscope.
For example, the healthcare provider can listen to the patient in real-time through headphones or earphones. Additionally, the data is transmitted through the app so that records can be stored in the patient’s medical file. Maintaining documentation about the patient’s medical history is helpful, and the digital files can also be shared with other medical professionals and colleagues.
The information collected through the digital stethoscope and corresponding app helps diagnose and treat various ailments, especially heart-related ones. At the same time, built-in Artificial Intelligence can be used to automate the process of detecting and reporting heart problems.
Technology allows for faster accuracy because the specific frequencies and sounds are amplified. As a result, healthcare professionals can determine a diagnosis quickly because they can clearly hear the sounds.
This accuracy happens because the healthcare professional is not only listening through high-end headphones but also using the information in a visual display to understand the bigger picture.
Cons of a Digital Stethoscope
While there are many advantages available from using digital stethoscopes, it’s also important to understand the potential drawbacks. Here are some of the cons associated with using a digital stethoscope:
A traditional stethoscope is cheaper than the prices you pay for digital tools. In fact, digital stethoscopes tend to cost at least double (or more) compared to analog stethoscopes.
Expect to pay between $299 - $499 for a good digital stethoscope. However, it can be a great investment if the digital features are essential for your medical specialty.
General Sound Issues
Even though digital stethoscopes can be helpful for amplifying sounds and identifying the nuances, there can be potential sound issues. For example, digital stethoscopes aren’t good in loud environments because they can pick up every sound in the area, including staff members talking in the hallway, phones ringing, road noise through the windows, and more.
Primary Care Pediatrician, Dr. Yolanda Whyte “While digital stethoscopes have the advantage of not needing to apply as much pressure to the body as traditional stethoscopes and can pick up low grade murmurs more easily, they also pick up more background sounds and requires a very quiet setting which is rare in pediatric clinics.”
As the sounds are amplified through technology, sometimes these sounds can become distorted. So, healthcare professionals need training and experience to learn how to use digital stethoscopes accurately.
These sound problems are even worse if you can’t get skin contact (with the stethoscope on the patient’s skin directly). If the digital stethoscope is used through clothing or other obstructions, it can affect the sound quality. The best results come from direct skin contact when possible.
Relies on Power & Software
The only way a digital stethoscope will work is if you have a power source and software to run the system. Many of these tools are powered by batteries, and you might have the option to use rechargeable batteries if desired. But if the battery dies, then the stethoscope won’t work. If it is out of power, then there is no backup option unless you have another stethoscope to use. In addition, some healthcare professionals find it a hassle to turn the stethoscope on and off.
Also, the app is often required to maximize the benefits and features of using the digital stethoscope. If the software is having problems, there can be times when the digital stethoscope requires a reboot: turning the device off and on again. In this situation, it can cause delays during the appointment as you wait for the digital stethoscope to start working again.
Susie Tushingham, a registered nurse at ChoicePoint expressed that she doesn’t deny the benefits of a digital stethoscope, “however, I always stick by my old traditional ones. I believe that I can make a better diagnosis without worrying about its battery running out or facing any mechanical malfunction.”
Even though the apps and software are designed to provide optimal performance, there is always a risk of problems and bugs in the application. It can be frustrating to deal with technology glitches while assessing and evaluating a patient.
Relies on a Phone
Some people find it inconvenient that they must have a digital device to use the stethoscope. Not only do you need to have the stethoscope during the examination, but it’s also necessary to have a smartphone or tablet to run the app.
So, you will need to carry two devices: the stethoscope and the associated phone. Both of these devices need to be charged and ready to go to ensure optimal performance and functionality in the examination room.
According to Whyte, “They can also be distracting to patient care when viewers are fascinated and ask about it and want to see, touch and use it. For these reasons, I prefer traditional stethoscopes.”
Weight & Quality
Traditional (analog) stethoscopes are built to last. Healthcare professionals have been known to use the same stethoscope for many years at a time. In comparison, digital stethoscopes are bulkier. They must be bigger because of the electrical components built into the stethoscope.
These modern stethoscopes tend to be cheaper and not as sturdy as traditional stethoscopes. The plastic buttons can be problematic, especially if worn down and not working correctly. Digital stethoscopes have a higher risk of wear and tear, especially since the quality can vary depending on the components inside.
Eventually, these digital stethoscopes will become outdated, and replacing them with updated versions will be necessary. As with other digital tools, newer models and versions come into the market, making the older models obsolete. Having a traditional stethoscope for backup is always a good idea.
On the other hand, traditional stethoscopes will never stop working because they are outdated. The analog design can continue working for countless years without reliance on the app or software updates and maintenance.
Digital Stethoscopes Won’t Make Traditional Stethoscopes Obsolete
Even if you decide to invest in a digital stethoscope, this newer technology will never push traditional stethoscopes out of the market. Doctors and healthcare professionals will always need to know how to use regular stethoscopes, especially if the digital unit fails and a backup option is necessary.
Healthcare professionals need to have the proper training and experience to know the foundational basics of using a traditional stethoscope. In a situation where power is unavailable (such as an emergency), traditional stethoscopes will be the only option.
Jennifer Silver, MD, Dentist and Owner of Macleod Trail Dental expressed the simplicity and reliability of traditional Stethoscopes, saying they are, “invaluable, especially in resource-limited settings or during emergencies. There's no need to worry about battery life or technical malfunctions, which can be a significant advantage in critical situations.”
Silver also mentions that, “The traditional stethoscope also carries cultural significance, serving as an emblem of the medical profession and a symbol of trust for patients.”
Most doctors continue using classic or basic stethoscopes because they offer reliability and consistent quality – especially when using a reputable brand. So, relish your new technology while keeping a traditional stethoscope nearby when needed.