Handhelds may power global ultrasound

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Lisa Fratt, Editor

Handheld ultrasound remains a hot-button issue for radiology, as pocket-sized systems open the door to a host of new users and may displace some full-featured systems. However, two recent projects illustrate the potential global benefits of these devices.

Take, for example, sub-Saharan Africa, which like much of the developing world, lacks access to radiology services. In Uganda, the maternal death rate is a sky-high one per 22 women.

Imaging the World (ITW), a nonprofit that integrates technology, volunteers and education to bring medical expertise and high-quality healthcare to remote and underserved areas worldwide, aims to reduce that figure by training health workers in the basics of ultrasound acquisition.

The plan hinges on basic, low-cost handheld ultrasound systems, with scans transmitted to the U.S. for diagnostic interpretation and bare-bones results returned to providers in Uganda via text message. Serious cases are referred to a hospital in Kampala, Uganda, which can receive full results via PACS. The model exemplifies the dramatic potential of these systems to impact global healthcare.

In the U.S., researchers at the University of Virginia Health System, with the aid of $6 million in Department of Defense grants, are attempting to migrate elastography capabilities to handheld ultrasound. The primary goal? Build a battlefield-ready device capable of measuring tissue stiffness to improve detection of traumatic brain injury.

Ultimately, the proof-of-concept project could lead to better treatments for TBI as well as facilitate the development of improved helmets to protect soldiers from the blasts that cause TBI. Here in the U.S., the model could be employed at sports sidelines to better triage athletes after they sustain a blow to the head.

These applications are likely the mere tip of the iceberg. Much like the iPad, where apps are only limited by the ingenuity of users, the possibilities for handheld ultrasound seem to be infinite.

What handheld applications are under way in your locale? Let us know.

Lisa Fratt, lfratt@trimedmedia.com