By Kim Bellard, August 16, 2016
The last company still manufacturing VCRs announced it has ceased their production. VCRs had a good run, most households had one, but their time has passed. Meanwhile, the stethoscope is celebrating its 200th birthday, and is still virtually the universal symbol for health care professionals.
There has got to be a moral in there somewhere. VCRs are a classic example of how technology (usually) moves on. Except in health care.
Like stethoscopes. Digital advocate Dr. Eric Topol recently tweeted: "The stethoscope's 200th birthday should be its funeral. That's all well and good, but -- to paraphrase Mark Twain -- reports of its death are greatly exaggerated.
It's not like stethoscopes do all that good a job, or, perhaps, that physicians use them all that well. A 2014 study found that participants only detected all tested sounds 69% of the time. As the authors diplomatically concluded, "a clear opportunity for improving basic auscultations skills in our health care professionals continues to exist."
Oh, and stethoscopes also help carry germs.
And it's not like there aren't alternatives. As one might expect in the 21st century, there are electronic/digital stethoscopes. There are also handheld ultrasounds that provide another strong alternative.
And now, of course, there are smartphone apps for stethoscopes. Apple was claiming 3 million doctors had downloaded its $0.99 stethoscope app as long ago as 2010, with Android versions also available.
And yet stethoscopes hang in there.
We might like to think that physicians continue to use traditional stethoscopes because they are simply being thrifty, since electronic stethoscopes and handheld ultrasounds are much more expensive, but that seems a reach. They've certainly not been reluctant to adapt other types of newer, more expensive technology -- at least, not as long as they can charge more for it.
It is a conundrum that has bedeviled economists: why in health care does new technology almost always increase costs, unlike most other industries? E.g., DVRs were much better than VCRs, but quickly became comparably priced. Professor Kentaro Toyama cites what he calls technology's Law of Amplification: "Technology’s primary effect is to amplify, not necessarily to improve upon, underlying human inclinations."
And in health care, those underlying inclinations don't drive towards greater value.
When it comes to stethoscopes, it's not about the money. Many physicians believe that the stethoscope helps foster the patient-physician relationship. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Andrew Bomback admitted that, "Indeed, for many doctors (myself included), the stethoscope exam has become more ceremony than utility."
Physician/engineer Elazer Edelman argues that a stethoscope exam can help to create a bond between patients and physicians. He worries that technology may be fraying the "tether" between doctors and patients. Still, if the relationship depends on which device a physician uses to listen to our chest, that relationship is in bigger trouble than we think.
So, R.I.P. VCRs, and thanks for the memories. As for stethoscopes, and for health care more generally, though, maybe the moral is that we should focus less on status symbols and more on what is best for patients.