By James Hurley 

Ultrasound is having a moment. Spurred by groundbreaking technology advancements, some modern ultrasounds are more akin to iPhones than the larger machines that likely come to mind. New ultrasounds have dramatically shrunk in size and become more portable, while expanding in capabilities, such as the use of WiFi for increased workflow flexibility and AI to deliver more accurate results.

Estimates based on published research expect that by 2023, there will be 70,000 to 90,000 new handheld ultrasound users each year. The increasing accessibility of ultrasound is attracting more and more healthcare providers that may not have previously benefited from ultrasound technology. Although the availability of ultrasound has not been common for general practitioners (GP) in the past, new ultrasound innovations—including pocket-sized devices—provide exciting opportunities for GPs to expand the type and quality of care they can provide.

Here are three reasons why primary care physicians are embracing handheld ultrasound:

1. More efficient diagnosis. GPs are often seen as the front line of care—and likely the most trusted source for patients’ healthcare. In some instances, the primary care physician needs to refer the patient to a specialist for further consultation.

Handheld ultrasound offers a unique opportunity to streamline patient management and decision-making. By adopting this tool, providers can easily check for and immediately rule out numerous medical issues. Not only can this create efficiencies across the entire healthcare ecosystem, it may improve outcomes with faster and more accurate diagnoses. And for patients, their care becomes more personal, and they can avoid the stress of numerous follow-up appointments.

2. Increased access. Ultrasound is increasingly showing up early in a doctor’s training. In fact, many medical schools have incorporated ultrasound technology into their curriculums. This early access to ultrasound technology has greatly expanded what, when, and where doctors are able to look inside the body. While artificial intelligence may remove some of the mundane tasks, training will remain a critical part of the process. With barriers such as size, cost, and complexity decreased with these devices, we may find more and more primary care doctors with handheld ultrasound devices in their pockets.

3. Advanced image quality. While handheld ultrasounds were a game-changer when introduced almost a decade ago, many worried about image quality when compared to traditional machines. However, ultrasound manufacturers have ensured image quality remains a top priority with handheld devices, even as other technology advancements, such as machine learning and artificial intelligence, come into the fold.

The result? Many modern handheld ultrasounds are not only portable and nimble, but also provide clear image quality to quickly rule in or rule out common conditions. This offers more confidence in image interpretation and diagnosis, and achieving these images does not come at the cost of portability. For most primary care physicians, the ability to provide patients with a confident assessment through bedside ultrasound is not a widespread service offered today but may become one in the near future.

Finally, in an industry constantly balancing accuracy, cost, and speed, any new tool able to provide all three has the potential to make a significant impact in primary care. When armed with innovative tools like handheld ultrasound, GPs are enabled to quickly detect and diagnose more complex illnesses—all at the bedside. The primary care physician space is ripe for disruption.

James Hurley is general manager of handheld ultrasound at GE Healthcare. Questions and comments can be directed to AXIS Imaging News chief editor Keri Forsythe-Stephens at [email protected]