By Paola Wisner, Flavien Daloz, and Jean-Pierre Henry

The demand for sonographers continues to grow, and hospitals and clinics need to differentiate themselves to recruit the best talent. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the demand for sonographers will grow through 2030 by 14%, with an estimated 12,000 sonographer jobs available each year. Ergonomics can be a critical—and likely overlooked—factor in recruiting and maintaining a talented ultrasound workforce, especially during difficult hiring times.

Ergonomic ultrasound devices can play a pivotal role in improving the quality of life for sonographers and helping avoid common work-related injuries. In 2018, the Society of Diagnostic Medical Sonography estimated about 90% of sonographers experience work-related musculoskeletal disorders. Moreover, upper limb pain and back pain are two of the most common pains for ultrasound practitioners.

The latest ultrasound technology utilizes customer feedback and surveys to address the areas where sonographers voiced the most concerns. This feedback highlighted one clear takeaway: the need for customization. Today’s innovative machine designs reduce the number of knobs and buttons, improve the screen adjustability, and deliver a system designed to help address the individual needs of sonographer teams. 

Customized for Sonographers

In the past, many systems utilized more than 50 buttons and a trackball for ultrasound imaging. Designs today have the same functionality, but with as few as 15 customizable buttons and knobs. This reduction helps users focus on the patient, rather than where their hands are on the system, and can also help to reduce strain on the wrist and hand. Additionally, these buttons can be organized and programmed specifically for the unique needs of the sonography team—allowing users to focus on those tasks they use the most.

Some modern ultrasound systems also utilize a trackpad control system over the traditional trackball, which simplifies the on-screen selection process through an intuitive design. Similar to how one navigates a smartphone or tablet interface, the trackpad simplifies the on-screen selection process. It is also angled so the user can lay their hand flat, compared to the trackball that requires a rounded hand movement. Whether the sonographer is sitting or standing, the trackpad enables efficient movements designed to help reduce strain to the wrist and fingers. Additionally, it can be easier to clean and maintain, which could promote a better workflow.

A common concern from sonographers is the ability to move the monitor and control panel to accommodate patient and user height needs. Older models utilize a center axis for the monitor and control panel to move around; however, they do not adjust up or down, left or right. This can lead to sonographers straining as they image patients or standing awkwardly throughout the day to manage the ultrasound system. However, the latest designs enable sonographers to manipulate the monitor and control panel to adjust in nearly any direction to help meet their height and patient needs. 

Today’s systems help sonographers avoid injury through more ergonomic designs. However, there is always room for improvement as researchers look to the future to see how ultrasound systems will continue to evolve.

Ultrasound of the Future

Ultrasound remains one of the most operator-dependent imaging modalities in the medical field. As we look to the future, customization will only continue to grow in importance as research and design teams explore how operators can have a better work experience while also capturing the most high-quality images.

One area of exploration is incorporating backend customization into a system’s software, rather than being limited by the physical hardware, which requires a significant time investment to adjust and program between sonographers. Currently, clinical teams must align on a single knob and button configuration to meet the needs of an entire facility of imaging professionals. However, recent research and development is focused on utilizing software to customize buttons to an individual user on the backend. This way, the knob and button configuration would be aligned with the sonographer’s log-in details, allowing each unique user to load their preferred button and knob presets automatically.

Automation through artificial intelligence (AI) is another area that researchers are exploring to help set a standard for imaging quality and patient experience. AI offers the opportunity to reduce user fatigue and strain by optimizing the system and performance. By eliminating redundancies and automating settings, sonographers could potentially save time per patient.

In summation, ultrasound is a critical imaging modality that provides key insights into the body. Researchers continue to evaluate how ultrasound systems can be more ergonomic to reduce sonographer injuries and improve workflow. By taking care of the health of our medical professionals, facilities can better serve the needs of their patients, while also creating a work environment that is designed to attract and retain top talent.

Paola Wisner is vice president, global research & development at Hologic; Flavien Daloz is head of ultrasound R&D at Hologic; and Jean-Pierre Henry is clinical marketing manager for ultrasound at Hologic. Questions and comments can be directed to AXIS Imaging News chief editor Keri Forsythe-Stephens at [email protected].