Stethoscopes face competition from today's more accurate ultrasound probes.ernstl/Flickr

The stethoscopes used by doctors for the past 200 years could soon be abandoned if US medical experts are to be believed.

An array of smaller, lighter, and more accurate ultrasound devices could soon push the device into antiquity, replacing it as the prime accessory of doctors.

The more portable and compact devices can be operated by hand and assist in emergency procedures.

The technology can provide an instant scan for possible trauma, and improve diagnostic accuracy as well.

Professor Jagat Narula and Dr Bret Nelson, from New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine, have predicted an end to the era of stethoscopes.

In an editorial in Global Heart, a journal of the World Heart Federation, Narula writes: "Several manufacturers offer hand-held ultrasound machines slightly larger than a deck of cards, with technology and screens modelled after modern smartphones."

The experts say that evidence shows ultrasound can diagnose heart and lung ailments, and can even reduce complications, with a much higher accuracy than the Victorian stethoscope.

"Thus, many experts have argued ultrasound has become the stethoscope of the 21st century. Why then, do we not see ultrasound machines in the coat pocket of every clinician? Several factors play a role," notes Narula, who is also the editor-in-chief of the journal.

Currently, the cheapest available stethoscopes can cost hundreds of pounds, but the ultrasound devices typically cost £1,000 to £5,000.

"The ultrasound machines are expensive, and even clinicians enamoured with the promise of point-of-care ultrasound must make a financial decision weighing the increased diagnostic accuracy against increased cost," he adds.

Another obstacle to the smooth rolling out of the ultrasound devices is that ultrasound is a comparatively new field relative to traditional diagnostic procedures. Many of the older clinicians who have completed their training long before ultrasound was part of standard practice may not be able to adapt to the new methods readily.

Smartphone-type Tools

However, the falling price of new technologies and the tech-savvy curriculum provided by medical schools could eventually render stethoscope obsolete, in favour of smartphone-type ultrasound tools.

"Many experts have argued that ultrasound has become the stethoscope of the 21st century.

"Certainly the stage is set for disruption; as LPs were replaced by cassettes, then CDs and mp3s, so too might the stethoscope yield to ultrasound. Medical students will train with portable devices during their preclinical years, and witness living anatomy and physiology previously only available through simulation."

The phasing out of stethoscopes from the market is not likely to start soon, as an older generation of doctors around the world will not likely part with the stethoscope as they are yet to be briefed and trained on the latest ultrasound technologies.

But a time may come when stethoscopes would be given a place of honour in antique museums, quips Narula.

"At that point will the 'modern' stethoscope earn a careful cleaning, tagging, and white glove placement in the vault next to the artifacts of Laennec, Golding Bird, George Cammann, and David Littmann?"