Prior to the development of the stethoscope, doctors performed auscultation by placing their ear directly on the patient to listen to internal sounds. The required physical contact between the doctor and patient, as well as the challenge of proper placement of the ear in order to observe the sounds became a major downside of this technique.

The history of the stethoscope dates back to the year 1816, when the first stethoscope was invented by Rene Theophile Hyacinthe Laënnec in France. However, a major advancement did not occur until 1851 when an Irish doctor, Arthur Leard, invented a bi-aural device to perform auscultation and it was later refined by George Cammann in 1852. [1]

The evolution

The stethoscope is probably one of the greatest inventions during the Industrial Revolution. During the 1960s-1970s, the stethoscope underwent various changes and improvements. One particular figure that was credited for these developments was Professor David Littman of Harvard Medical School. Today, many health professionals are familiar with the Littman brand. The modern stethoscope that he designed was significantly lighter, with improved acoustic sound. [2]

Over the years, stethoscopes have continued to evolve, with electronic stethoscopes making their way into the medical scene. An electronic stethoscope comes with features such as the ability to record and save sound tracks, sound transmission via Bluetooth, sound amplification as well as an integrated noise reduction technology. Thinklabs, a company founded in 1991 that specializes in developing solutions in medical technology, recently came up with a high-tech digital stethoscope that is said to be the smallest and most powerful in the world. The device has an advanced connection system for smartphones, tablets and computers and has the ability to amplify sounds up to 100 times. [3]

In an ideal situation, doctors would often have no trouble observing internal sounds from patients simply by using the most basic, conventional stethoscope. After all, doctors have been using conventional stethoscopes for more than two centuries. The breakthrough in most recently-invented stethoscopes is for the most part making it more convenient for doctors, especially in less-than-ideal situations – when hospitals are noisy, when quick and precise medical readings are critical, etc. The lightweight design, along with the ability to capture audio and visual display, of course, is the icing on the cake.

Then again, the electronic stethoscope comes with a huge price tag as well. Moreover, many of the additional functionalities may not be very crucial within many healthcare specialties. Generally, the matter of choosing between a conventional stethoscope and a high-end electronic stethoscope is a matter of preference. Some health professionals would definitely enjoy the advanced features of the electronic stethoscope, while others would not find them necessary – or even affordable, for that matter.

Looking towards the future

We all have witnessed how “cool” devices keep on emerging and replacing their predecessors. Therefore, it is not surprising that this phenomenon can happen to the stethoscope as well. The future of the stethoscope, as with other gadgets that were previously invented, is never certain. For all we know, the handheld ultrasound device may well take over the role of the stethoscope one day. If that is the case, our grandchildren and great grandchildren may define a “stethoscope” as something completely different someday – if it is still around. MIMS

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[1] American Diagnostic Corporation. History of the Stethoscope
[2] CEUfast Blog. Evolution of the Stethoscope, January 2014.