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Stethoscope hygiene: a brand new bag

September 2010

Published in the September 2010 issue of Today’s Hospitalist

LATER THIS MONTH, Massachusetts hospitals will begin receiving free samples of a new product designed to help prevent hospital-acquired infections. Stethguard is a V-shaped, sterile plastic bag that doctors rip off a roll and insert their cleaned stethoscope into before they touch a new patient. It’s designed to stop physicians from spreading bacteria to patients and themselves, according to its inventor, hospitalist Richard Ma, MD.

The founder of the hospital medicine program at Saints Medical Center in Lowell, Mass., Dr. Ma says that the impetus for Stethguard was his unease with dedicated stethoscopes in rooms with contact precautions. “That’s the last thing I want to touch,” he says. “Everyone else has touched it, as has the dirty patient, and it’s gross.”

Putting a glove around his stethoscope isn’t any better. “Everybody puts their dirty hands into the glove dispenser, grabs more than they need and shoves the rest back,” he points out. The few stethoscope covers on the market, he says, typically cover only the stethoscope head and don’t work.

Dr. Ma is counting on physicians’ self-interest to generate sales. “As many as 90% of stethoscopes have bacteria on them, so why carry those around on your neck or in your pocket?” he asks. There are other market forces in his favor: Hospitals must now bear the cost of preventable hospital-acquired infections, and many hospitals must also publicly report infection rates.

But those factors didn’t matter much when Dr. Ma searched for a manufacturer. Large companies “he talked to Procter & Gamble and Baxter “want products with a sales record, even if that record is small. “It’s like ‘Field of Dreams,’ ” he says. ” ‘If you build it, they will come’ “but you have to build sales first.” Ditto for venture capital firms, which want to invest millions, not hundreds of thousands, in a start-up.

Still, Dr. Ma considers himself lucky. With an undergraduate degree from MIT and a residency at Harvard under his belt, he was able to cultivate contacts through alumni networks. Those led him to a great patent attorney and a manufacturer. He estimates that he’s invested more than $100,000 of his own to get Stethguard off the ground. (For information, contact him at marh@alum.mit.edu.)

Dr. Ma already has his eye on his next inventions. He’s talked to Verizon about a new type of physician answering system, and he’s designed sterile gloves that likewise rip off a roll, his answer to dirty glove dispensers.

And while he spends 10 hours a week on his inventions, Dr. Ma has no intention of giving up medicine. “The hospital,” he says, “is where I get all my ideas.”