Health Column: Breaking the news to my stethoscope: ‘Your days are numbered’ |

Health Column: Breaking the news to my stethoscope: ‘Your days are numbered’

Phil Mohler, M.D.
Free Press Health Columnist

I felt a little sad when I read a report from the “Scientific Session of the American Academy of Family Practice” last week. The keynote speaker, Dr. Eric Topol, a renowned cardiologist, reported that he had not used a stethoscope in four years.

“It’s a relic,” he commented about the stethoscope. “Why would you use that when you can see everything in seconds?” Dr. Topol demonstrated his point to the audience by unbuttoning his shirt, attaching a device to his smartphone and performing an echocardiogram on himself on stage.

Stethoscopes have been around for about 200 years. The first one was developed by a French doctor. This very shy physician had to examine a woman who was rather well endowed. The thought of his naked ear on her naked chest was unacceptable to him. He rolled up a piece of paper and applied it to the lady’s chest, and thus resolved his predicament. He then made one out of wood, and soon they were selling for 15 francs.

In a recent study published in a heart journal, researchers found that a hand-held ultrasound exam was more accurate than a stethoscope examination for normal and abnormal heart function, and it also saved $63 per patient.

So what’s my problem with the imminent demise of my precious stethoscope?

A physician wielding a stethoscope has great symbolic value to her patients. This skill goes to the core of the art of medicine — the laying on of hands, the touching that patients seek and expect. In like manner, from my first days as a medical student, my $29 stethoscope defined me as a physician.

Another part of my discomfort with a ultrasound device replacing my stethoscope stems from a feeling that I am cheating. Identifying a subtle heart murmur with a stethoscope is challenging; having a picture of a leaking heart valve flash up on a screen seems way too easy.

I thought of offering my stethoscope on eBay as I’ve heard that exterminators like to use them to listen for carpenter ants and mechanics use them to sort out bad bearings; but then I remembered a great game I used to play at home with my kids. We’d take turns listening with the stethoscope to food landing in our stomachs after swallowing something. You can actually hear the KERPLOP as the food lands in the pool of stomach acid. I can’t wait for the next family dinner!

Free Press health columnist Dr. Mohler has practiced family medicine in Grand Junction for 39 years. He has a particular interest in pharmaceutical education. Phil works part-time for Rocky Mountain Health Plans. Email him at

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