The stethoscope is having a crossroads moment. Perhaps more than at any time in its two-century history, this ubiquitous tool of the medical profession is at the center of debate over how medicine should be practiced.
In recent years, the sounds it transmits from the heart, lungs, blood vessels and bowels have been digitized, amplified, filtered and recorded. Four months ago, the Food and Drug Administration approved a stethoscope that can faithfully reproduce those sounds on a cellphone app thousands of miles away or send them directly to an electronic medical record.
Algorithms already exist that can analyze the clues picked up by a stethoscope and offer a possible diagnosis.
But whether all this represents the rebirth of diagnostic possibility or the death rattle of an obsolete device is a subject of spirited discussion in cardiology. The widespread use of echocardiograms and the development of pocket-size ultrasound devices are raising questions about why doctors and others continue to sling earphones and rubber tubing around their necks.