Why Do Doctors Use Stethoscopes?


Ah yes, the stethoscope. A universal symbol of medicine. But you must be wondering, what in the world
are these pieces of rubber doing next to high tech equipment like MRI scanners and robotic
surgery? Surely these are obsolete relics from the
19th century! Well the answer lies at the intersection of
history, the human body and technology. The Stethoscope was invented in 1816 by a
French Physician called René Laennec. René invented it because he was a gentleman
and he felt uncomfortable putting his ear on women’s chests to hear their heart sounds. And no I’m not making that up! But why would you want to listen to the heart
sounds in the first place? A key challenge for a doctor is to find out
what’s happening inside the human body, without resorting to opening it up. As technology has progressed, we have found
different ways of peering inside a living person without harming them, things like X-rays,
ultrasound and MRI. But the first X-ray wasn’t taken until 1895
and an X-ray can only provide you with a still image. It can’t tell you about what’s happening
inside the body in real time. As a physician in the early 1800s, René knew
that listening to the heart sounds can provide a clue to whether the heart valves are working
properly. In our hearts, there are 4 valves that help
push blood only in one direction. When the valves shut, they make a sound and
the normal heartbeat has 2 clearly distinguishable sounds. When the heart valves don’t function properly,
you can hear this whooshing sound as blood passes through them. For example, this is the sound of a common
heart valve condition called Aortic Stenosis. You can hear this sound even if you put your
ear to someone’s chest. Of course, modern stethoscopes make this much
less awkward, but also amplify the sound. Stethoscopes are not just useful for the heart. You can also listen to the lungs to check
if air is passing freely in and out, the intestines to check whether the gut is working after
having an operation and stethoscopes also help you when taking someone’s blood pressure. Technology has advanced dramatically since
the 1800s. We now have automatic blood pressure machines
that require little human input, ultrasound Echocardiography that helps us see the heart
valves in real time and CT scanning which can provide detailed images of the lung. This doesn’t mean that stethoscopes have
become obsolete. These humble pieces of rubber are still an
important screening tool. If we hear something odd, then we may follow
up with a more sophisticated test like an Echocardiogram. In countries where healthcare resources are
scarce, basic tools like the stethoscope become even more important because sometimes, critical
decisions may need to be made without having access scanning equipment like CT scans. Just like a fancy self-driving electric car
still needs wheels, Doctors and Nurses will continue to use a stethoscope as an important
part of the medical toolkit. As always if you have any questions let me
know in the comments. Thanks for watching and I’ll see you in
the next one.

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