Cause of Device-Related Incident
*Not stated

Clinical Specialty or Hospital Department
CCU / ICU / NICU; Nursing; Pediatrics

Device Factors
*Not stated

Document Type
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

External Factors
*Not stated

Support System Failures
*Not stated

Tampering and/or Sabotage
*Not stated

User Errors
*Not stated

Thermometers, Electronic, Infrared, Ear [17-887]

Ear Thermometer Accuracy

FAQ [Health Devices Sep-Oct 1998;27(9-10):368-9]

Question: Why do we get inaccurate and inconsistent patient temperature measurements when using our ear thermometers? Should we use a different brand?

Answer: Hospital Grade ear thermometers (frequently referred to as tympanic thermometers) are generally very accurate instruments. Most likely, your problems are not related to the thermometers themselves—rather, they are likely the result of an inadequate understanding of the limitations of ear thermometry. Thus, it is unlikely that these problems will be resolved simply by changing suppliers.

Ear temperature can vary greatly because of environmental factors (e.g., if the patient's ear has not warmed up from being outside in cold weather) and because of variations in patient ear anatomy. Consequently, a single ear-temperature measurement will not reliably establish the presence or absence of a fever. ECRI discourages the use of ear thermometers to make treatment decisions based on a single measurement. We also discourage the assessment of ear-thermometer readings using protocols and target values that have been established for other temperature-measurement sites.

ECRI believes that ear thermometers should be used only for tracking or trending of patient temperature status. Even this use can be compromised by inconsistent user technique (i.e., failing to position the thermometer at the same depth and angle in the ear canal for each measurement). Inconsistency will result in significantly varied measurements from patients whose temperature status is in fact unchanged. Achieving compliance with standard technique requires that the staff understand the importance of consistency and that any differences of opinion about the best technique be resolved.

To avoid diagnosis errors and measurement inconsistency, ECRI recommends the following:

  1. Use only one model of ear thermometer in any given institution.
  2. Set all thermometers to the same mode or "offset."
  3. Ensure that all users employ a uniform technique.
  4. Record measurements in charts as "Ear Temperature" (or an appropriate abbreviation), with an indication of which ear—right or left—the measurement was taken from.


Thermometers, Electronic, Infrared, Ear [17-887]

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