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Handheld Ultrasound: The New Stethoscope?

January 24, 2011
Written by: , Filed in: Diagnostic Imaging, Practice Management
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Computers have shrunk from room-filling mainframes to desktops to laptops to handhelds within just a couple of generations. Ultrasound is barreling down the same path to miniaturization. While that is not necessarily good news for radiologists, Christine Lawrence is delighted about it. It may have saved her life.

Lawrence is a second-year student at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, in Columbia. According to the school’s media relations office, it’s the only medical school in the country that uses ultrasound as part of the curriculum during all four years of medical school. Students have access to 25 laptop and three handheld ultrasound devices.

During her first year, while studying for a test, Lawrence and some of her fellow students were practicing with the ultrasound devices on each other. They had trouble seeing the structures in Lawrence’s neck, so they asked for help from Victor Rao, MBBS, DMRD, RDMS, the school’s director of ultrasound medicine.

Dr. Rao examined Lawrence’s neck, keeping up a running commentary that included the phrase “a lesion on the thyroid.”

“I said, ‘Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. You said “lesion on the thyroid,”‘” Lawrence recalled in an interview with the Charlotte Observer.

It turned out to be thyroid cancer. In January 2010, she had her thyroid removed. She timed follow-up procedures for school holidays so she wouldn’t have to miss class.

“I was a believer in ultrasound anyway, but this definitely demonstrated the importance of it,” Lawrence said. “You can see something a lot easier than feeling for it. If I hadn’t had the ultrasound, I’m not sure when [the cancer] would have been found.”

Lawrence plans a career in family medicine and said she plans to use ultrasound as an integral part of her practice:

You can sit there and look at something and not have to send a patient somewhere else where it will be more expensive, it will take more time, and the patient will be less likely to do it.

That “somewhere else” would likely have been a radiology practice.

Expect other medical schools to follow South Carolina’s lead. The market-research company Global Industry Analysts, Inc., said last week that the boom in handheld units will be a major driver in the expansion of the global ultrasound market over the next five years, according to DOTmed News. If you have the inclination to read the full report (and the required $4,500), you can get it here.

Said Richard Hoppmann, MD, deal of the South Carolina medical school, “There is no question in my mind that ultrasound is changing how we teach and how we practice medicine. It’s a tremendous educational and teaching tool. It helps the students understand and learn anatomy, physiology, pathology—all areas of medicine.”

Dr. Hoppmann said handheld ultrasound devices could be the stethoscope of the future. Ultrasound, he said, “is changing the way we practice medicine.”

Related seminar: Imaging Advances: Abdominal, Thoracic, Skeletal

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