Mini ultrasound revolutionizing emergency medicine

March 11, 2010 6:58:09 PM PST
For decades, ultrasound technology has provided parents with images of their unborn children, and doctors with real-time views inside the body. But now a new version of those machines could move the technology outside hospital walls.

The device is about the size of an iPhone and it is used to scan a patient's organs. The handheld ultrasound is made by a Palo Alto company called Signostics.

"You can wear it around your neck, stick it in your pocket, you can use it inside the hospital, outside of the hospital, in remote locations," said Sharon Alexandrea of Signostics.

The device, which weighs about half a pound, is one of a new wave of miniaturized ultrasounds bringing what was once a high-end hospital technology onto the front lines of emergency medicine.

"Just imagine pulling this out of your pocket, taking it off around your neck, and scanning the patient right there," said Alexandrea. "You've triaged that patient and you can move into the next level."

"EMTs in rural areas and crash settings, there's lot of information you can gather right at the point of care," said Kristin Woitovich with medical giant Siemens.

Siemens built some of the earliest ultrasounds, originally the size of copy machines. Woitovich says while the miniaturized versions are not nearly as powerful, they are designed to answer simple questions quickly.

"Answer to questions such as, 'Is there fluid in the belly?' So if [there is] blunt abdominal trauma, you can see it distinctly on the image, there's a very black and white distinction," she said.

Both companies sent their devices to Haiti to aid crews who were pulling victims from the rubble of the recent earthquake.

"In those situations, stethoscopes themselves, because there's so much noise going on around you, you really can't hear anything. Really, to verify life, you've got to be able to visually see what's going on," said Woitovich.

Manufacturers are betting that relatively low prices, from about $4,000 to $10,000, will help reach smaller customers.

San Rafael veterinarian, Kristina Hansson, uses the Signostics device on routine procedures. "We can get urine with one poke rather than multiple pokes," she said.

While they will not replace the stethoscope, which has a 200-year head start, the devices are sparking an intense competition for what some believe could ultimately be a billion dollar market.

Last month General Electric unveiled yet another miniaturized ultrasound called the Vscan, also about the size of a cell phone.


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