Rapid bedside diagnosis using a stethoscope has played an integral role in the healthcare field for decades. As technology caught up with the industry, quicker methods of diagnosing patients were introduced, although not perfected. Enter the world of handheld ultrasound (HHUS) imaging systems, which when paired with stethoscopes bring a new dynamism to expedited hospital care.
Diagnostic sonography utilizes high-frequency sound waves capable of creating images, or heat maps, of body parts normally unseen without conducting a biopsy. Native ultrasound machinery is large, or at least large enough to render it immobile; however, unlike MRIs, imaging is done in real time, although the extended functionality of produced images is limited. Ultrasound technology is a much more cost-effective, rapid, and reliable means of detecting anatomical inefficiencies.
Just several decades ago, ultrasound machinery became mobile by placing smaller monitors on a cart that could then be rolled into various examination rooms, plugged in, and used much like the larger versions. In time, the accuracy of diagnostic sonography improved, but the size remained the same. Improvements in transducer technology have resulted in the ability to produce much smaller ultrasound systems, which are now offered in a handheld version by several manufacturers of medical equipment.
Stethoscopes, developed over two hundred years ago and growing, measure auscultation and are chiefly used to listen to the lungs and hearts of animals and humans. Because there’s no credible link to improvements in patient prognoses by using stethoscopes, they are determined to be observation tools, whereas ultrasound devices give a deeper examination and allow for quicker treatment. Whether handheld diagnostic sonography will be the “stethoscope of the future” remains to be seen.
Today’s HHUS machinery boasts wireless connectivity, anatomically accurate imaging, and even the ability to send images to smartphone devices. The ability to use these devices either in a facility or remotely makes them especially attractive when specialists are located internationally, or even across the street. Future portable ultrasound imaging systems may even have wearable technology where patients can take “watches” home, sending images to their primary care provider on a daily or hourly basis.
Potential barriers to widespread hospital use include lack of education, concerns regarding medical coding and billing, the delivery of false positives (or negatives), and distractions when used in an educational setting that could deter premed students from upholding core values in patient diagnostics. Should HHUSs fail to deliver accurately, unnecessary additional tests could be ordered, which leads to increased patient costs that may not be covered under a patient’s current insurance plan. However, these are kinks that simple education and more widespread use could iron out.
Currently, market competition hasn’t fully developed, with major players such as Samsung, General Electric, Fujifilm, Siemens, and Toshiba working to develop the most useful HHUS units. Philips offers a downloadable subscription-based app that turns your mobile phone into an ultrasound device. By plugging in a transducer, cellular devices can bring point-of-use patient diagnoses anywhere Wi-Fi or wireless service is available. Retail prices for HHUS equipment range from $8,000 to $20,000 but are expected to drop to the $2,000 range when more units are introduced. In addition to the market competition, innovation in manufacturing and the increase sophistication of LPKF’s laser plastic welding technology has shown its promising role with increased portability and decreased costs for medical devices providing more patients access to high-tech healthcare.
Many question whether these handheld units will replace the stethoscope completely or even reduce its usefulness altogether. For now, stethoscopes will work adjunctly with HHUS units, until a technological advancement makes one, or both, obsolete. Radiology students in many universities have begun training to use portable diagnostic sonography, with widespread implementation expected to heighten by 2023.