Familiarising Yourself with Medical Equipment

Last updated: 24/9/2020

Throughout your time in medical school, you will be introduced to several different instruments and equipment. While the degree of exposure to these instruments will vary with the curriculum type specific to your university, it’s useful to have an idea of what you can expect. Here, we’ve compiled a brief list of basic medical equipment you will learn to use at medical school as well as in your medical career.

Stethoscope 

A stethoscope

A stethoscope is a medical instrument used by physicians for the purpose of listening to someone's heart or breathing. It’s commonly used and plays an integral role in many physical examinations you will eventually study at medical school.

However, as curriculums vary across medical schools, you might find you don’t quite need it as a first year. It might be tempting otherwise but for this reason, we’d recommend waiting to start university before you splurge on buying your own*. 

If you find your school offers early clinical exposure and decide you would like to purchase a stethoscope, we’d then recommend the 3M Littmann Classic III model which is relatively basic and used by most medical students and junior doctors throughout the country. 

*there is also a chance you might be given a discount code during Freshers’ Week

Tendon Hammer

A tendon hammer

A tendon hammer, or a reflex hammer, is an instrument typically used during neurological examinations to test deep tendon reflexes which when lacking, indicates some degree of central/peripheral nerve damage. 

While some universities may indicate a need for a tendon hammer on a list of things to bring to university, we recommend you wait until you get there to ask if you actually need your own. The scenarios in which you will be using a tendon hammer will generally have one ready for you to use. 

Using a tendon hammer requires a light touch rather than a full blown swing. For example, holding the hammer at its far end, lightly tap the patellar tendon (just inferior to the patella) and if done correctly, should elicit a jerk reaction as shown:  

As well as the knee jerk, the tendon hammer can be used to test bicep reflex, brachioradialis reflex, tricep reflex, ankle jerk, and jaw jerk.

Urine Dipstick Test Strip

Urine test strips

The urine dipstick test strip is used for urinalysis and often shows up as a station in Objective Structured Clinical Examinations (OSCEs). A special strip of paper undergoes a colour change after being immersed and taken out of a patient’s urine due to concentration of specific substances in their urine. The strip is then compared against the reference colour guide to provide information on the patient’s condition.

Examples of what this non-intrusive test can indicate are: bilirubin levels, protein concentration, glucose concentration and ketone levels. Abnormal results can be diagnostic of a myriad of diseases such as kidney damage, diabetic ketoacidosis, uterine tract infections, biliary obstruction, etc.

As in any clinical setting, it is extremely important to remember to wash your hands and wear gloves throughout your handling of the urine dipstick strip. It is also important to check the expiry date on the bottle.

Scalpel

A scalpel

A scalpel is a small and very sharp instrument, made up of a surgical blade and a handle. It is used to cut through soft tissue in surgery. As a medical student, you are likely to come across this instrument during dissection sessions. 

When using a scalpel there is proper technique to follow to ensure you don’t hurt yourself and to ensure the specimen is dissected correctly. For example, when making superficial incisions, you are going to want to hold the scalpel like you would hold a pen whereas when making deep incisions you might need to hold the scalpel between your thumb and middle finger with your index finger guiding its path from above. Examples of these can be seen below:

Scalpel grips: Fiddle-bow holding and pencil holding

When handling a scalpel, we recommend you wear socks that cover your ankle and to never point the blade at another student when passing it on. Instead, point the blade towards yourself so the handle is on their receiving end. 

A proper technique for handing over a scalpel, pointing the blade towards yourself.

Sphygmomanometer

A sphygmomanometer

You’ll probably have come across a sphygmomanometer before during your visits to the GP and some of you may have even already used one. In layman terms, a sphygmomanometer is also known as a blood pressure meter and is used to measure someone’s systolic and diastolic blood pressure. 

Used in conjunction with the stethoscope, the cuff is placed above the elbow (an arrow on the cuff should match in line with the brachial artery) and wrapped tight. Palpate the radial artery (as shown below) and inflate the cuff until a pulse can no longer be felt. This is their approximate systolic blood pressure. 

Release the cuff. Then, place the stethoscope above the brachial artery (shown below) and inflate the cuff once more 20-30mmHg above the approximate systolic blood pressure. Slowly release pressure until a pulse is heard and note the value on the meter as the actual systolic blood pressure. Continue to slowly release the cuff until a pulse can no longer be heard. This is the diastolic blood pressure. 


This has been a brief introduction to some of the medical instruments commonly used during the early stages of medical school. By no means is this an exhaustive list and unless you are attending a medical school with a traditional curriculum, you should expect to be exposed to many more tools than this. However, we believe a basic level of insight can make starting medical school less daunting and hopefully, this has sparked some kind of intrigue for what’s to come.

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