Letters from Maine

Letters From Maine: An albatross or your identity?


The last time I saw her she was coiled up like a garter snake resting comfortable in the old toiletries travel case that was my “black bag” for more than 40 years. Joining her in peaceful solitude were a couple of ear curettes, an insufflator, and a dead pocket flashlight. The Kermit the Frog sticker on her diaphragm was faded to a barely recognizable blur. The chest piece was frozen in the diaphragm position as it had been for several decades. I never felt comfortable using the bell side.

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She was the gift from a drug company back when medical students were more interested in freebies than making a statement about conflicts of interest. I have had to change her tubing several times when cracks at the bifurcation would allow me to hear my own breath sounds better than the patient’s. The ear pieces were the originals that I modified to fit my auditory canals more comfortably.

I suspect that many of you have developed a close relationship with your stethoscope, as I did. We were always close. She was either her coiled up in my pants’ pocket or clasped around my neck where she wore through collars at a costly clip. Her chest piece was kept tucked in my shirt to keep it warm for the patients. I never hung her over my shoulders the way physicians do in publicity photos. I always found that practice pretentious and impractical.

If I decided tomorrow to leave the challenges of retirement behind and reopen my practice would it make any sense to go down to the basement and roust out my old stethoscope from her slumber? There are better ways evaluate hearts and lungs and many of them will fit in my pocket just as well as that old stethoscope. Paul Wallach, MD, an executive associate dean at the Indiana University, Indianapolis, predicts that within a decade hand-held ultrasound devices with become part of a routine part of the physical exam (Lindsey Tanner. “Is the stethoscope dying? High-tech rivals pose a challenge.” Associated Press. 2019 Oct 23). Instruction in the use of these devices has already become part of the curriculum in some medical schools.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

There have been several studies demonstrating that chest auscultation is a skill that some of us have lost and many others never successfully mastered. As much as I treasure my old stethoscope, is it time to get rid of those albatrosses hanging around our necks? They do bang against desks with a deafening ring. Cute infants and toddlers yank on them while we are trying to listen to their chests. If there are better ways to auscultate chests that will fit in our pockets shouldn’t we be using them?

Well, there is the cost for one thing. But, inevitably the price will come down and portability will go up. If we allow our stethoscopes to become nothing more than nostalgic museum pieces to sit along with the head mirror, what will replace them as tangible symbols of our identity as physicians? What will photographers drape over our shoulders? With very few of us in office practice wearing white coats or scrub suits, we run the risk of losing our identity.

Sadly, I fear we will have to accept the disappearance of the stethoscope as a natural consequence of the technological march. But, it also is an unfortunate reflection of the fact that the art of doing a physical exam is fading. With auscultation and palpation disappearing from our diagnostic tool kit we must be careful to preserve and improve the one skill that is indispensable to the practice of medicine.

And, that is listening to what the patient has to tell us.

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at [email protected].

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