Is the physical exam a relic of the past, because our tools are relics of a prior era?
I recently wrote a piece about the physical exam . It is important to do and teach a thorough exam. I cautioned against the overreliance on diagnostic testing in lieu of a physical exam, which can be initially burdensome and prolonged. But perhaps our difficulty with the physical exam is not the exam itself, but the tools that we have at our disposal to perform an exam, rather than the exam itself.
Let's talk about the stethoscope
As a child, I often had the image of a doctor that included a long white coat, benevolent smile, black bag filled to the brim with tools, and of course the ubiquitous stethoscope. However, as a doctor now, I find myself less excited about the stethoscope. Often it’s a nuisance that gets caught on bed poles in the ED and wrangles my neck. (It may be useful, however, as Trick of the Trade tip as a tourniquet for the EJ exam .)
Out with the old, in with the new!
The old-school doctor had the stethoscope and all 5 senses (except hopefully taste) to assist with physical exams. The present-day doctor now has something else around the neck, the portable ultrasound! Portable ultrasound has opened up a field of ultrasonography called Point of Care Ultrasound that appeals directly toward the needs of EM. According to NEJM , “point-of-care ultrasonography is defined as ultrasonography brought to the patient and performed by the provider in real time.”
It enhances patient evaluation and examination in almost every organ system, including diagnosis of pneumothorax, cholecystitis, ectopic pregnancies, and extremity fractures. Using an ultrasound to enhance the physical exam in these cases makes the diagnostic process more efficient. Sonography allows the examiner to go beyond the 4 senses (minus taste) and perform a useful exam.
The question now remains, if ultrasound is so great, is there ANY use for the stethoscope? Can we throw away the stethoscope and only use the ultrasound for patient examinations?
My first thought is that we are comparing apples to oranges. I feel that ultrasound does not simply replace the stethoscope. It blows ultrasound out of the water! We can do a more thorough exam with ultrasound than we could ever do with the stethoscope. So it isn’t a fair comparison. That being said, there are pros and cons to consider.
I still always wear my stethoscope around my neck for every shift, and obligingly use it on every patient that I see. It is a part of my routine exam-- emphasis on the word routine. But I can’t wait until the day when I get my own portable ultrasound, and it will fill that groove around my neck!
What do you think?
It is time to recycle your stethoscope, or am I being too premature?
Nikita ( @njoshi8 )
My fiance works for Siemens ultrasound and used to work for GE ultrasound