One of the most common questions I encounter from prospective EMT students is, “What stethoscope should I buy?” Factors to consider are:

  • Does my course require that I have one?
  • What is my budget?
  • How often will I be using it in class?
  • Will I continue to use it after class is over?
  • Do I have any special requirements?
  • What if I lose or damage the stethoscope?

Note: The following price estimates derived from allheart.com product page.

Best stethoscopes for EMT – Economy range

We will now breakdown the various types of stethoscope based on their features and cost.

  • Economy/Disposable – $5-$50
    • Pros
      1. Inexpensive
      2. Low cost to replace
      3. Easy to maintain
    • Cons
      1. One-size fits most
      2. Low quality components
      3. Not as effective

Keep in mind, you get what you pay for. You will be able to train your ears to hear the blood pressures and the breath sounds in a lab setting and even when you are practicing at home on your friends and family members, but when you respond to a 911 call or an interfacility transport (IFT) it is going to be challenging to hear the tones, especially the subtle tones, in this environment.

You are going to have to retrain your ears all over again and may never be able to hear blood pressures and breath sounds on some patients. With that being said, stethoscopes within this price range are completely appropriate for students and new healthcare practitioners on a limited budget.

Best stethoscopes for EMT – Mid-range

  • Mid-range – $50-$300
    • Pros
      1. More comfortable
      2. Quality components
      3. Easy to maintain
      4. Often multi-purpose
    • Cons
      1. More costly to replace/repair
      2. Proprietary parts
      3. Expensive

These stethoscopes are greater for those new healthcare practitioners that have obtained employment and have been working for a few months and have decided to continue to advance his or her education by going to either advanced EMT (AEMT) or paramedic school. With numerous options to choose from, it’s best to talk to your peers and see what your community has to say. Your partner may even let you test his or her stethoscope out and see if it is right for you before investing the money. Stethoscopes are not pieces of equipment that you can commonly walk into a medical supply store and test out.

Best stethoscopes for EMT – High-end

  • High-end – $300+
    • Pros
      1. Best quality
      2. Most options
      3. Best performance
      4. Specialized
    • Cons
      1. Highest cost
      2. More maintenance
      3. What happens when components fail?

High-end stethoscopes are common for healthcare practitioners with hearing deficits, who work on aircraft or in another environment with a significant amount of noise, for example an oil rig. These are commonly electronic stethoscopes that are capable of amplifying the tones to make sure you can hear them. These devices are not only extremely expensive, but also require more maintenance. So be prepared to go without the device for periods of time while it’s ‘in the shop,’ so to speak. I would not buy the device with engraving from the company as some of the concerns I have seen pertain to the difficulty of getting a replacement from the seller when engraved. Get it engraved after you are confident it works correctly and meets your needs.

What EMTs say

I asked a colleague for his thoughts on stethoscopes and he had this to say:

“Throughout my 20-year career I have owned two stethoscopes. I started in EMT school with a $20 sprague-rappaport style stethoscope that came with a blood pressure cuff. I used that one for about three years before I stepped up to a $200 modern single tube model with customizable soft rubber earpieces and I was blown away by the difference.

“When I got older and realized that time had taken its toll on my hearing, I experimented with some electronic amplified models but found that they did not give me a markedly better experience. It’s also important to note that none of my stethoscopes made me a super-medic. Training and experience taught me how to get the most out of the tools that I use. Once I found a stethoscope that was the proper balance of comfortable, rugged, and affordable I found that spending a few dollars periodically to replace eartips, diaphragms, and tubes was well worth it and have added years of life to my stethoscope.”

Once you’ve graduated from your EMT training program and started working, the above options will probably suffice as they’re similar to the stethoscopes commonly provided for us in the ambulance and jump bag. But at some point you should consider an upgrade. This is especially true if you intend to stay in the industry and go on to paramedic school. If you choose to purchase an expensive stethoscope, be sure to have it engraved with your name and contact information. It may surprise you how often I’ve heard about someone leaving his or her stethoscope on the ambulance after his or her shift.

Interested in learning more about EMS gear? Check out our review of the SAM XT Extremity Tourniquet!