It’s all in Your Stethoscope!

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Have you ever wondered if there is something better out there than your trusted Littmann? Most of us got our first stethoscope in nursing school. Maybe somewhere along the line, you got a nicer one as a graduation gift or you decided to splurge and get a new one. Maybe you just got the memo a little too late and left yours hanging by your rearview mirror only to find it permanently in that position, or it became a borrowed part of someone else’s assessment kit.
There is a lot to know about stethoscopes and it can be hard to decipher what is a waste of money and what may make your life a little easier. To help you out, we’ve done some searching (listening?) and picked our favorites.
There is a reason you got that Littmann to start. These are quality stethoscopes with a wide range of options. A good medium-end version is the Littmann Classic III, which comes in a variety of colors, isn’t too heavy, and has a tunable bell, which means you don’t need to flip the bell around to hear higher or lower sounds, you simply need to adjust the amount of pressure you use when placing it on the skin. It still has smaller and larger bell sides which can be turned for those of you who care for both pediatric and adult patients.
There might be a little learning curve to a tunable bell vs. a dual switchable option, but in the end, it will save you time and help keep your stethoscope clean because you aren’t touching as frequently. (you still need to clean it after every patient though..)
At a price point of around 100 dollars, the Littmann III won’t break the bank and has lots of happy customers. If you want a step up in quality, consider the Littmann IV cardiology stethoscope. The same features are all there but the sound quality is kicked up a notch by dual tubing and better earpiece fit.
If you lose your scope a couple of times a year (we’re sure someone stole it) you may want to consider a much cheaper version. Amazon customers rave about the clarity of this scope and at 39 dollars it is significantly cheaper. If you aren’t exactly a cardiologist and just need something capable of hearing the usual, you can get by with the ADC Adoscope Lyte. At only 3 pounds it won’t give you a headache just like it won’t hurt your pocketbook.
Of course, if you are on the opposite end of the spectrum and you are ready to spend big money on your favorite tool, look no further than the digital stethoscope. After all, it’s 2021 and there are some clear advantages to the digital age.
These scopes are capable of magnifying sound at a much greater level than the traditional stethoscope and can sometimes even show an image of what you are hearing. If you are hard of hearing or simply prefer a visual, this can enhance your assessment skills. An added benefit in the COVID era is the ability to transmit sounds via Bluetooth, which means you can hear the stethoscope without having to get germy earpieces anywhere near your ears by using a set of Bluetooth headphones underneath your layers of PPE.
One of the most popular digital stethoscopes is from the Ekos brand, which incidentally makes an attachment for that Littmann you may already have. They are Bluetooth capable which is great for the hearing impaired practitioner and those who work in infection disease or otherwise would prefer to use earbuds or hearing aids to listen. At 40x the amplification, the 3M Core Littmann with Eko technology is the best of both stethoscope worlds. The price at $315 isn’t exactly easy to hear though. Many practitioners swear by it, but some say that it makes it harder to hear slight end noises like wheezes or crackles.
The truth of the matter is that none of these stethoscopes will help you if you don’t care for them and use them correctly. One of the most common issues is fitting into the ear canal. Start by making sure you have the earpieces facing outward before placing them in your ear. A little misalignment can make everything a whole lot quieter. You may not need a better stethoscope, just a better technique. You can also purchase different sizes of earpieces to help get the right fit for you.
Play around with the bell and figure out much pressure you need to hear low sounds vs. higher sounds. A little practice in a quiet space can go a long way to helping you hear those sounds in the back of an ambulance or a busy trauma room. If you still aren’t sure what will work for you, start by borrowing your coworker’s stuff (we do mean borrow, these things aren’t free!). Just be sure to clean the ears before you give them back.
Don’t forget that storing it all curled up in your locker or your hot car (gasp!) is a huge no-no. If you want to extend the life of your stethoscope, you need to treat it better than your favorite pen. That includes cleaning it between uses and making sure you store it somewhere with enough space.
Overall, you can’t go wrong with a trusty Littmann, but there are a lot of options out there if you are ready to try something new. Don’t forget that it isn’t the listening that counts, but the interpretation. If you are on the struggle bus with lung or heart sounds, check out this training resource to sharpen your skills.
No matter which one you choose, spring for the engraving to make it less likely to walk away!
Amanda Ernst, DNP, RN, CEN

Amanda Ernst, DNP, RN, CEN


Amanda is an ER nurse with 10 years of healthcare experience. She currently works as a nurse educator and as an adjunct professor for several schools. She also works as a freelance healthcare writer in her spare time. Amanda thinks the greatest thing about nursing is the endless possibilities and opportunities to learn. What have you learned today?


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