The Importance of Knowing How to Use a Non-Digital Stethoscope
In today’s digital age, we’re used to the convenience that advanced technology often provides. However, this doesn’t mean that analog, or non-digital, devices are completely obsolete and don’t offer their own value.
As you continue reading below, we will discuss the importance of knowing how to use an analog stethoscope, dive deeper into how it’s used to assess and diagnose various conditions, and explore the role that non-digital stethoscopes continue to play in modern medicine.
What Is An Analog Stethoscope?
An analog stethoscope is a traditional, non-digital medical device used to monitor internal sounds like breathing or heartbeats. They are a vital resource in a medical provider’s toolkit that they can use to assess and diagnose patients accurately.
Though digital stethoscopes have grown in popularity recently, there is still a lot of value in using an analog stethoscope. Thus, both experienced and new medical professionals need to understand how to use non-digital stethoscopes effectively.
When comparing a digital vs. traditional stethoscope, you’ll find that traditional analog devices are often more affordable and long-lasting than their digital counterparts. Plus, many providers find it inconvenient to use another device like a cell phone to use their digital stethoscope. Not to mention, digital stethoscopes rely on some sort of power source to function, so if the batteries die or the power goes out, they become useless.
The Basics: Anatomy of a Non-Digital Stethoscope
Let’s review some of the key components of a non-digital stethoscope. When looking at the instrument, you should notice a few main features:
Chest piece: The part of the stethoscope that gets placed against the patient’s chest, and consists of the diaphragm, the bell, and the stem
Tubing: This is the flexible, hollow tubing that transmits internal sounds from the chest piece to the practitioner’s ears
Earpieces: These are elements typically made from rubber or silicone that get placed in the ear canal so users can hear the internal noises of the patient
Though analog stethoscope designs can vary among different brands, they all generally function the same way. At its core, the ability of these instruments to transmit sound is based on vibrations and sound waves.
When the diaphragm of the stethoscope is placed against the patient, their breathing and heartbeat will create a soundwave, vibrating the surface of the chest piece. These vibrations will work their way up the instrument until they reach the earpieces so the practitioner can listen to what’s going on in their patient’s body.
Auscultation, or the act of listening to internal body noises that come from the heart, lungs, and other organs is something that medical professionals must be trained in. It’s how they’re able to translate the noises they hear through their stethoscope into valuable insights about the body.
Listening to the Heart: Cardiac Auscultation
One of the most common uses of an analog stethoscope is for cardiac auscultation to diagnose heart conditions. It is what allows doctors to detect abnormalities and heart conditions so they can be properly evaluated and treated.
When using a non-digital stethoscope to listen to a patient’s heart sounds, the practitioner should be in a quiet and private environment for best accuracy, and place the patient in the proper position for easy access to their chest. As a reference, high-pitched sounds are best heard using the diaphragm of the stethoscope, and low-pitched sounds are best heard with the bell.
The practitioner will then place the chest piece of the stethoscope flat up against five main landmarks on the patient’s chest to perform thorough cardiac auscultation, including:
Aortic: the right side of the sternum between the second and third ribs
Pulmonic: the left side of the sternum between the second and third ribs
Tricuspid: the lower left sternal border between the fourth and fifth ribs
Mitral valve: the left side of the sternum between the fifth and sixth ribs
Erb’s point: the left side between the third and fourth ribs
These five points of auscultation ensure the medical provider is able to listen to all of the valves surrounding the heart to assess how they’re functioning. Some of the standard heart sounds that medical providers will listen for during cardiac auscultation include:
S1 (Lub): The first heart sound that is heard from the closure of the atrioventricular (mitral and tricuspid) valves, best heard in the mitral area
S2 (Dub): This is the second heart sound, representing the closure of the semilunar (aortic and pulmonary) valves, best heard in the aortic area
The “Lub-Dub” rhythm is considered normal and is what practitioners are looking for in their patients. Any abnormalities or unusual noises could represent a possible heart murmur or other cardiac condition. Thus, clinicians need to be well-trained so they can pick up even the slightest nuances during auscultation for early detection of cardiac conditions.
Deciphering the Lungs: Pulmonary Auscultation
Another key use of a non-digital stethoscope is pulmonary auscultation to listen for abnormalities in the lungs and assess respiratory health.
The vocal qualities that are heard with a stethoscope can help practitioners diagnose possible pulmonary conditions.
Medical professionals can hear pulmonary sounds all throughout the chest area, from the collarbones to the bottom of the rib cage – both on the patient’s posterior and anterior. In general, these are some of the common noises heard in pulmonary auscultation:
Tracheal: a harsh and loud noise heard in the trachea
Bronchial: a loud and hollow sound heard in the anterior chest
Vesicular: a soft and low rustling heard through most of the lung fields
Abnormalities like wheezes or high-pitched hissing noises can be symptomatic of conditions like asthma, COPD, or fluid in the lungs.
The Art of Blood Pressure Measurement
Manual blood pressure measurement is another type of physical assessment that is possible using a non-digital stethoscope, with the help of an inflatable cuff, or a sphygmomanometer.
During this process, a doctor or nurse will listen to the sound the blood makes as it flows through the patient’s brachial artery in the upper arm. To do so, the deflated cuff is placed around the upper arm of the patient. The medical provider should locate the brachial artery, and then inflate the cuff, which temporarily closes off the artery.
Slowly deflate the cuff so blood can flow back into the artery, then the practitioner should start to hear noises through the stethoscope. The first noise that is heard represents the systolic pressure, or the pressure in the artery when the heart beats. When the sounds disappear, this represents the diastolic pressure, or the pressure in the artery when the heart rests between beats.
The Value of Acoustic Clarity
Achieving clear sound transmission is a very critical aspect when using a non-digital stethoscope, and cannot be overstated. Since this instrument plays a crucial role in how medical professionals diagnose, monitor, and assess medical conditions in their patients, acoustic clarity is of the utmost importance. It’s what allows practitioners to detect even the slightest nuances in sounds that could reveal an undiagnosed condition.
For optimal performance, it’s best to keep your stethoscope clean and well-maintained. Here are some helpful tips to keep your non-digital stethoscope in good condition:
Keep the instrument away from extreme temperatures (heat or cold)
Avoid contact with the stethoscope and solvents or oils
Clean the stethoscope between each patient with a disposable 70% alcohol wipe or soap and water
Use light pressure when cleaning the stethoscope
Do not soak the stethoscope or clean it with hot water
The Human Touch in Healthcare
When it comes to providing proper care, the connection between medical professionals and their patients is extremely important. With this in mind, traditional stethoscopes promote a more personal patient-doctor interaction, which can be lost when using a digital stethoscope.
Patients don’t want to feel like just a set of data points to practitioners, and an analog stethoscope is an important tool that doctors have to show their commitment and make meaningful contact with their patients.
The physical touch that patients receive when a stethoscope is placed against their chest, back, or arm represents the care and attention that doctors or nurses are putting into their wellbeing, without even having to say a word. This act represents human connection and goes beyond the clinical purpose of the instrument.
For decades, the stethoscope has been an enduring symbol in medicine, representing the link between doctors and patients. To this day, it symbolizes a medical provider’s dedication to caring for their patients both on a physical and personal level.
Training and Proficiency
Given these instruments' important role, medical students and active professionals must be properly trained in using analog stethoscopes. Digital stethoscopes are becoming more popular, but they may not always be available or practical in a given setting.
Though there is a learning curve to proper auscultation, there are plenty of resources and educational tools available for learning and honing these skills. For instance, the 3M™ Littmann® Learning Institute app is free to download with the purchase of any Littmann stethoscope. This app helps students learn and practice their auscultation skills from anywhere so they can become a master in no time.
The Rise of Digital Stethoscopes: Complementing, Not Replacing
As technology has advanced, there is no doubt that digital stethoscopes have become increasingly popular in medicine over the recent years. These high-tech instruments now have impressive capabilities like being able to amplify and record sounds, enable remote patient monitoring, and provide visual representations of audio data.
While their advanced features cannot be denied, non-digital stethoscopes continue to hold their own in the field. In this way, digital stethoscopes should complement, not replace, non-digital stethoscopes – the two can coexist effectively.
There is an enduring value to non-digital stethoscopes: they are highly reliable, time-tested, long-lasting, and do not require access to any other device or power source to function. They represent the personal care and connection between a provider and their patient and can provide important foundational education around auscultation and how the body functions.
Khurshid Hamid, audiologist and founder of ‘I Love My Ears’ explains why she still reaches for her analog stethoscope this many years into her career.
“I'm an audiologist who often checks blood pressure,” shares Hamid. “I trust traditional stethoscopes more. Why? They've been reliable for years. I can hear subtle sounds directly. Digital ones can sometimes distort sounds.”
Healthcare professionals should remain committed to the art of auscultation with a non-digital stethoscope. While there is a place for digital stethoscopes in modern medicine, analog stethoscopes will remain a standard component of delivering quality patient care.