Ultrasound technology has taken giant leaps forward over the last five years, and the progression continues in 2016. The once bulky ultrasound machine is increasingly being shrunk as technology enables the development of fully functioning handheld sonography equipment. Now ultrasound technology and medical training are intersecting to deliver bedside imaging, and sonographers are sure to one day become an extension of the physician in areas where there is a shortage of healthcare professionals.
The Healthcare Landscape
People must have access to healthcare professionals and technology if they are to be included in a quality healthcare system. In the U.S., one-fourth of the population lives in rural areas, and approximately 10 percent of physicians practice in these areas. There are over 2,150 designated Health Professional Shortage Areas in rural areas and territories according to the results of a project funded by the federal Office of Rural Health Policy.*
What does this have to do with handheld sonography scanners? The answer is: Plenty! One of the suggested solutions to the problem of lack of healthcare access is greater use of technology coupled with greater emphasis by medical educators on practice in rural settings. Family physicians deliver a great variety of medical services in rural and urban areas, and technology is increasingly making it possible to efficiently deliver sophisticated healthcare services that once required patients to visit medical facilities.
Small Equipment with Large Implications
Technology advances one step at a time and one project at a time. The National Institutes of Health funded a project leading to the development of a handheld ultrasound imaging device called the Vscan, commercially launched in 2010.** The General Electric product can be used in several care areas that include cardiology, emergency and critical care, primary care, obstetrics and gynecology, and urology. There are two devices available now which are the Vscan and the Vscan with Dual Probe. The second device is the first type ultrasound equipment with a probe that houses two transducers for shallow and deep views. It can support rapid triage and speed up diagnosis of diseases and abnormalities of organs and systems.
This is not a marketing promotion for the Vscan. It is a simplified explanation of state-of-the-art ultrasound equipment and its capabilities to better understand where the sonography profession is heading. The next step is real-world field application of the handheld equipment. This is where ultrasound technology and medical training are intersecting.
In 2012, the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York announced the start of a new project called “Seeing Is Believing.” The research study involved the training of first-year medical students in the use of pocket size ultrasound devices – the Vscan. The goal of the study is to show that handheld technology can support medical education by delivering the ability to produce live images of the body’s organs and systems. At the time the project was announced the Principal Investigator, Dr. Jagat Narula, said that he believed the pocket ultrasound devices would one day play an integral role in the physical examination.
Zoom forward in time, and the results of a new study at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine were presented at the 2014 American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions. This project gave second-year medical students lessons on methods for using the handheld ultrasound device in the diagnosis of heart disease. Training included equipment use and additional education on cardiac anatomy and normal echocardiograms. Students were given a final examination after the sonography training was completed. Researchers found that trained medical students using the technology were more likely to diagnose valvular heart disease than students who did not get training.
Sonographers Role will Grow
The implications of these research projects are crystal clear.
- First, medical students and physicians can deliver higher quality healthcare services by training on and using handheld ultrasound devices.
- Second, the Vscan or the technology that follows will enable the delivery of sonographic imaging services almost anywhere, including in rural areas. However, since there are not enough physicians to cover the rural areas, Diagnostic Medical Sonographers will become their extensions in terms of producing images in any area where access to healthcare is limited, sending or delivering the digital images to physicians in urban areas who can then assess and confirm the patient conditions.
- Third, Diagnostic Medical Sonographers are the professionals who get in-depth ultrasound training by attending CAAHEP accredited ultrasound programs. The short training of physicians on pocket-size ultrasound imaging may be able to speed up diagnosis in many cases, but it is ARDMS registered sonographers who can deliver the highest quality imaging services.
The innovations in ultrasound imaging are exciting. The handheld ultrasound technology is still new and still not yet fully utilized. When it is, the sonographer will be front and center in bringing the technology to patients who would not be able to enjoy the benefits it offers otherwise. It is always good news any time healthcare access increases.
** Point of Care Ultrasound Imaging