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Special report: Ultrasound

by Carol Ko, Staff Writer | July 05, 2013
International Day of Radiology 2012
From the July 2013 issue of HealthCare Business News magazine

When Philips general manager Conrad Smits moved over from running the MRI division to ultrasound and someone told him he ran the poor man’s MRI division, he didn’t take it as a snub. Being familiar with the impressive capabilities of MRI, he took it as a compliment instead.

In fact, there are numerous clinical applications in which ultrasound shows superior or equivalent efficacy compared with technologies such as MRI or CT, according to Val Veitengruber, vice president of clinical economics and policy reimbursement at SonoSite. For example, when scanning patients with a history of kidney stones many researchers believe ultrasound should be the first scan of choice, not CT.

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But clinical evidence isn’t enough on its own. Motivating physicians to use ultrasound first —by no means an easy task — is key. “We’re working very hard on making ultrasound a part of the medical school curriculum so doctors are used to the modality and comfortable with it,” says Veitengruber.

Of course, ultrasound isn’t without its downsides. Two main obstacles stand in the way of ultrasound’s potential for widespread adoption: usability and readability.

For all its cost efficiency, ultrasound is still a heavily user-dependent modality compared with most other imaging systems, and manufacturers have a ways to go to make ultrasound screening more standardized, user-friendly and efficient.

Part of what drives the urgency behind this shift is that hospital administrators, not clinicians, now have the final say in imaging equipment purchasing decisions, forcing manufacturers to focus much more on general patient throughput and other practical economic outcomes than they have in the past as they develop their products.

While the throughput on other modalities such as X-ray machines have been fine-tuned to an automated science — their patient parameters populated beforehand so that the technologist only has to point and shoot, with minimal keystrokes or fiddling to get the best image quality — ultrasound has yet to reach this level of efficiency.

With the Affordable Care Act bringing an influx of new enrollees into the health care system, if ultrasound’s proponents want this modality to be adopted on a wider scale, they need to figure out how to make it more efficient for that scale — and quickly, too.

“Ultrasound isn’t there yet,” admits Smits. “But it’s getting there.”

Ready reading
3-D ultrasound — only made possible in recent years due to an increase in computing power in ultrasound systems — will undoubtedly go a long way in helping ultrasound join the “big leagues” of imaging.

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