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By Chelsea Karnash

ROCHESTER, MN (CBS) – You expect your doctor to have clean hands before treating you, but what about that stethoscope?

It seems obvious now that it’s mentioned, but you’ve probably never considered the germs that could be congregating on the most rudimentary of medical tools.

Now, new research suggests you might not want to think about it. Ever.

According to a new study in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, researchers found more bacteria on doctors’ stethoscopes than was present on the palms of their hands following a physical exam.

Researchers say 71 patients were examined by one of three doctors wearing sterile gloves and a sterile stethoscope. After completing the exam, scientists measured the levels of bacteria on two parts of the stethoscope and four parts of each of the doctor’s hands. The stethoscope’s diaphragm (the part that comes into contact with patients’ skin) was more contaminated than all parts of the physician’s hands except the fingertips, and the stethoscope’s tube was more contaminated than the back of the doctor’s hand.

It makes sense. While doctors are taught to wash their hands between patients, it seems doubtful that they’re dousing their stethoscope in sanitizer after each examination. With most doctors seeing many, many patients over the course of a day – let alone many years – it’s no surprise that something used as frequently as a stethoscope would be overrun with germs.

But it gets worse. During the study, researchers got similar results when MRSA-positive patients were examined, meaning you could potentially pick up the drug-resistant bacteria from your doctor’s stethoscope.

“By considering that stethoscopes are used repeatedly over the course of a day, come directly into contact with patients’ skin, and may harbor several thousands of bacteria (including MRSA) collected during a previous physical examination, we consider them as potentially significant vectors of transmission,” said lead investigator Didier Pittet, MD, MS, Director of the Infection Control Program and WHO Collaborating Centre on Patient Safety, University of Geneva Hospitals. ““From infection control and patient safety perspectives, the stethoscope should be regarded as an extension of the physician’s hands and be disinfected after every patient contact.”

That being said, you might want to request your doctor perform a thorough sterilization (preferably in front of you) at your next appointment.

To read about the study, click here.

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