I’m sure you’ve seen ads for digital stethoscopes across the internet and wondered what all the hype is about. Are they really that much better? Are they worth the cost?
In this article, we’ll discuss the differences between digital scopes and traditional analog scopes, and my genuine thoughts as a nurse who has used both.
What is a Digital Stethoscope?
A digital stethoscope is a stethoscope that converts sound waves into electrical signals. The sound is then filtered to remove noise interference that is not coming from the acoustics sounds of the body, then amplifies to your desired frequency, and finally makes its way to your ear canal through the earpieces.
You may also hear the term electronic stethoscope. The terms “digital” and “electronic” are used interchangeably and essentially mean the same thing.
Benefits of Digital Stethoscopes
There are multiple benefits of digital stethoscopes. Here are just a few of my personal favorites.
One of the biggest benefits of digital stethoscopes is astonishingly clear audio and sound quality. This doesn’t even compare to a regular stethoscope. When I got my first digital scope, I immediately tried it out to compare it to my traditional scope by listening to my own heart sounds.
It’s a night and day difference. Now, I’m not hard of hearing but at the bedside, I have always struggled to hear heart, lung, and bowel sounds well. I’m one of those nurses who closes the patient’s door and mutes the TV just to cut down on the inevitable background noise of a hospital and really tries to listen in to what I’m hearing.
I also have hosted my own podcast since 2017, and have since become very familiar with the experience of good sound quality. This perspective has also helped me to really appreciate the higher quality sound, especially when clinical decision-making is at play…
I was pretty surprised at the difference between sound quality between analog and digital. The sound was much more crisp and clear.
I can only imagine the implications of this increased sound quality in light of COVID-19, and all of the other highly complex disease processes impacting the heart, lungs, and bowels that often fill up our intensive care units. As a bedside nurse working with patients experiencing advanced disease processes, having such a tool at your disposal is very empowering and a big confidence boost. This is especially helpful in learning heart and lung sounds, very challenging skills to master, and there are many new nurses in critical care areas!
Simply put, this is a serious stethoscope, all grown up.
Even since I started nursing school in 2007, I’ve always wished I could literally turn up the volume of my stethoscope. I truly never believed that would ever become a reality. Alas, with digital scopes it actually is!
Many digital scopes have the capability to amplify the sound from the patient. This is possible because the acoustic sound waves are converted into electrical signals. You can’t turn up acoustic sound waves, but you can turn up the volume on electrical signals!
While sounds are amplified, other frequencies that come through (like ambient noses) are reduced. So it’s not like you’re amplifying ALL of the sounds, just the ones that matter.
Some digital scopes also have the ability to record. This allows you to save or share recordings of patients’ heartbeats and breathing sounds with other healthcare professionals, which can help expedite clinical care.
This can eliminate the need to explain what you’ve heard when consulting with another healthcare provider. You can simply have them listen for themselves without having to physically be at that patient’s bedside.
For example, let’s say you’re on a cardiac med-surg unit and not sure if your post-op mitral valve replacement patient has developed a new murmur. You think you hear a change, but are not sure even with the sound turned up, and background noise reduced.
You simply record it and walk over to the cardiovascular intensive care unit to ask one of those nurses to take a listen before calling the surgeon to make sure you’re on the right track. You can even send the sound directly to the surgeon if necessary!
Or, if you believe you’re detecting a change but you’re not entirely sure, you can always record it and then reassess later, comparing your current findings with your recorded ones. This is far more accurate than simply guessing.
Not to mention, this also has wonderful teaching implications.
Other features you may see on digital scopes
Not all digital scopes are exactly the same. When considering which one is best for you, there are different features to consider. Some you may come across:
- Sound filter for switching in between different body systems
- Battery-powered versus charged
- Use of wireless earpieces instead of traditional ones
- Neonatal, pediatric, and adult options
- Ability to toggle back and forth between analog and digital
- An app that pairs to the scope to capture sound and visualize them (which can help hearing-impaired health care providers)
- Make sure you note warranty length, as this can vary
Consider what’s important to you in your unique situation. You may prefer the feel of a traditional scope, or not suffer from hearing loss yourself so don’t need the highest degree of sound amplification possible, or price may be your top priority.
Different Digital Options
When researching digital scopes, I have found that the market has changed rapidly in the last few years. Various models have been discontinued, while others have been upgraded. After much research, these are the top three options in the electronic stethoscope space that I have come across.
|Name||Price||Warranty||Sound Amplification||Ambient Noise Cancelation||Ability to Record||Notes|
|Cardonics E-Scope 7700||$335||1 year||50% greater sound sensitivity than analog|
|Price and warranty varied widely. Has headphones, not regular earpieces. AAA battery. Filter for heart and lung sounds. A second person can listen simultaneously.|
|Eko CORE from Littmann||$350, but likely can get for $299||2 years||40x||Yes||Yes||Can toggle between digital and analog, chargeable, has Eko app to see a visualization of sounds, traditional scope feel.|
|Thinklabs One||$499||2 years||100x||Yes||Yes||Can be used with any headphones, bell with a cable to headphones. May be challenging to use rapidly in code situations compared to traditional scope that can sit on the neck and quickly put on.|
My thoughts as a nurse
While the Cardonics scope does have a lower price point of $335, I have seen many coupons for the CORE scope from Littman that brings their price point down to around $299. Honestly, the price was probably the only thing putting Cardonics ahead of Eko, from my perspective. I don’t love the idea of using headphones instead of traditional stethoscope earpieces. I can see those headphones getting lost in scrub pockets or easily misplaced.
Cardonics does not provide a clear number of amplification, and I have trouble understanding truly what “50% greater sound sensitivity than analog” really means. While researching this article, I came across various now-discontinued digital scopes that offer sound amplification anywhere from 24-100 times greater than analog.
I’ve seen some great reviews for the Thinklabs One scope, however, it is extraordinarily expensive. What you’re getting for that increased price is the ability to amplify the sound even more. Given that I don’t suffer from hearing loss, I don’t think that paying an extra $200 for amplifying sound 60x more would actually move the needle for me.
Further, the Thinklabs One scope is a dial that is connected to a set of headphones. It does not have the traditional feel of a stethoscope that you can put around your neck when walking around the hospital. So, if you’re a code team nurse who has to rapidly assess on the move, fumbling with headphones and finding the dial might not be the most practical solution or at least take some getting used to.
The Thinklabs One might be your best bet if you are a severely hearing-impaired healthcare provider and really need to be able to crank it up, and are also able to take really good care of it (therefore an office setting versus running around a busy hospital unit).
My Digital Stethoscopes Recommendation
The no-contest winner in my opinion is the Eko CORE from Littman. You can amplify sound, toggle on/off between analog and digital, recording functionality, noise cancellation, feels like a traditional scope, has a solid 2-year warranty, and is at a reasonable price.
To learn more and get yours, click here.
Another amazing option that Eko offers is the Eko CORE Digital Attachment. If you have a stethoscope you already love, use this attachment to transform the stethoscope and enhance auscultation through amplification, active noise cancellation, wireless listening, and Eko software.
Finally, Eko offers one more amazing option. If you are a cardiac nurse dealing with even more heart sounds, the Eko DUO ECG and Digital Stethoscope will be your best bet. DUO is the first cardiac assessment tool that functions as an ECG and digital stethoscope, used to detect early signs of heart disease and facilitate more personalized care in any environment. DUO can be used with or without included earpieces.
Do you use a digital stethoscope? What features are a must-have for you?