Who knew there was such a thing as disposable stethoscopes—and that they’d be in such demand during a pandemic?

As it turns out, medical workers have been using them to monitor patients with highly infectious diseases—and to reduce the spread of those illnesses—long before COVID-19 became a household word. But as cases of novel coronavirus ramped up, Mary Washington Healthcare officials realized there was a worldwide demand for disposable stethoscopes.

“It’s not even that we’re having trouble finding them, we cannot get them,” said Abigail Croy, a nurse and clinical performance improvement specialist at MWHC. “Our supply chain routes have dried up, and we cannot locate them.”

Officials turned to their in-house Innovation Council, formed in the midst of the pandemic to deal with such matters. Chairman Cody Blankenship, who came to the health care system three years ago from manufacturing, brainstormed with community partners. He suggested they make their own, producing parts from 3D printers.

When Chief Nursing Officer Eileen Dohmann heard that, she scratched her head more than she jumped for joy.

“How can you do that?” she wondered.

Several weeks and prototypes later, she got an answer. Nurses were able to use the 3D-printed stethoscopes to clearly and comfortably hear the sound of their patients’ lungs and heartbeats.

“It was a great way for us to partner with people in our community and our organization who have the resources and the talent to create such things,” Dohmann later said. “We’re pretty excited.”

What’s even more exciting—beyond the choice of neon colors for the tubing that goes around a nurse’s neck or the “drum” piece that sits atop a patient’s chest—is that the 3D-printed stethoscopes are made better than any disposable stethoscopes the health care system ever bought. About 300 have been delivered to MWHC hospitals, to date.

“The quality is so good, and they’re so reliable,” Blankenship said the hospital plans to sanitize the equipment as it would any other reusable device. “We’re gonna squeeze every bit of value that we can out every critical asset that we can get our hands on.”

‘BLOWN ME AWAY’

Just like Rome, a highly functional 3D-printed stethoscope wasn’t built in a day. The council worked from online designs for equipment that primarily was made for third-world countries with limited resources, Blankenship said.

For the first prototype, all pieces of the stethoscope were printed, and the result was a stiff, unbending device that was hard to put on and even harder to hear with, Blankenship said.

The second version featured other plastic sources for the diaphragm, the circular piece contained within the drum to help pick up sound. Nurses said they could hear better, but the stethoscope was still uncomfortable to wear and not nearly flexible enough to use.

More tweaks were made before the third prototype, which incorporated a combination of printed parts, diaphragms cut from plastic page protectors and strips of vinyl or silicone tubing, the same kind used in restaurant soda dispensers. Nurses much preferred the silicone, and designers later added more comfortable ear pieces similar to what’s used on headsets.

Croy figuratively put on her nursing cap and tried the latest-and-greatest version. She was prepared for the muffled sound from disposable stethoscopes of old, which made it seem like she was hearing the thump-thump through a tunnel.

The sound on the 3D-printed stethoscope came through loud and clear.

“It really is amazing how well they work,” she said. “When I think of printers, I think of paper and ink, I don’t think about printing an item. It’s blown me away that we are printing medical equipment.”

‘MOST INCREDIBLE’

Greg Smith, a Stafford County engineer who creates items on the 3D printer in his basement, says the same.

“I think that the stethoscopes may be the most incredible thing I have been able to manufacture,” he said. “3D printing technologies are advancing rapidly, and brilliant people around the world are finding new ways to use these technologies for all kinds of scientific and industrial uses.”

Harry Schoeller, who heads the engineering program at Germanna Community College, operates four printers at work and one at home. He regularly uses them in robotics classes at Germanna and during workshops with local middle-schoolers who’ve used the printers to make their own fidget spinners.

After successfully printing stethoscopes for Mary Washington, Schoeller is thinking he’d like his students to make them as well.

“I would call it the most useful thing I’ve printed on a 3D printer,” he said.

Other partners have ranged from a father-and-son team to Carlos Castro, who heads a team from Prince William County schools. Officials there approved the use of 10 school printers to make whatever personal protective gear medical officials and first-responders need.

Craig Graziano, who manages the Fredericksburg branch of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library, works with fellow employee Simon Watts to keep 12 library printers running to crank out parts. They’ve used 3D printers in the library for seven years and have trained customers how to use them for three years as part of an initiative.

The library workers first printed face shields, masks and ear guards with 3D printers then ventured into disposable stethoscopes—and have produced more than 1,110 parts. As the design has changed, Blankenship has sent his printing partners the accompanying materials for assembly so each can enjoy seeing the finished product.

Schoeller, whose wife just graduated from nursing school, said he’s been glad to help any way he can during the medical crisis. So have library workers from various branches who’ve been willing to assemble masks, then stethoscopes, Graziano said.

Blankenship isn’t surprised by the volunteer efforts. He’s seen “a very high degree of civic mindedness” since his family moved to the area in 2017.

“I don’t know that all communities would get this kind of support,” he said. “On one hand, I’m not surprised, but to see the stethoscopes coming in and to see the challenges—because none of this was easy—that definitely took some dedicated folks who were willing to stay engaged, and that is unique. Not everyone can endure the development process.”

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425

cdyson@freelancestar.com

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