Contributed Commentary by Dale R. Cyr
June 18, 2021 | Much like other technology devices, medical equipment is getting smaller. Ultrasound machines, for example, are no longer forced to live on carts that are pushed from examination room to examination room. Many can now fit in the palm of your hand and operate through Smart Phones. These “miniaturized” ultrasound devices are having a significant impact on healthcare and creating greater access to this life saving technology for patients around the world. According to research firm Market Data forecast, the global portable ultrasound market was worth $3.91 billion in 2020, and estimated to grow at a CAGR of 7.4% to reach $5.59 billion by 2025.
Because of it its newfound portability and lower cost to access, ultrasounds are becoming more readily available to a wider variety of healthcare professionals. And while the machines no longer have the same complex look and feel, the artistry and skill required to operate them properly has not changed. Training health care professionals, who will be using these devices, correctly and accurately is absolutely paramount to quality patient care. Unskilled use of these machines can result in inaccurate diagnoses that may cause further unnecessary medical imaging, possible harm or even death to patients. To mitigate risk, there needs to be an increase in usage standards, and healthcare professionals need to receive proper training and meaningful certification.
Driving Ultrasound Access
Sonography, or better known as ultrasound, is a powerful diagnostic tool. The images they generate serve as the eyes into the inner workings of a patient’s body and can identify a wide range of conditions without the harm associated with other devices. Where other diagnostic imaging tools may expose patients to radiation, ultrasound devices offer a non-ionizing, less intrusive alternative. When you combine the safety advantages, new portability and lower-costs of these machines (there are currently options available for devices for less than $2,000USD), ultrasound becomes an imaging tool of choice for many health care professionals. It’s not uncommon for internists, family practice physicians, physical therapists, nurse practitioners, EMT/Paramedics and more to have an ultrasound device as part of their practice.
Additionally, inexpensive hand-held ultrasound devices make the technology more accessible for use in limited-resource communities around the world. For many years pricing has limited the availability of ultrasound in these areas, but with improved portability, longer battery powered times of machine operation combined with lower prices, there’s a reduced barrier to entry, leading to a great opportunity to elevate the quality of care in most geographic medical settings. However, now that the technology is available, the absence of training is the number one roadblock for widespread quality implementation. A study in Critical Ultrasound Journal examined the use of the technology in resource-limited settings, and found that 60% of its 138 respondents cited training as the primary barrier limiting adoption. For the first time, accessibility to ultrasound technology is not the problem. The problem is the lack of access to universal standards of education, training and certifications.
Why Standardization and Certification Are So Important
When not properly trained, ultrasound operators can cause serious harm to their patients through misdiagnosis. Point of Care Ultrasounds (POCUS) were cited by the ECRI Institute as being the number two tech hazard for 2020, and the reason was due to the adoption rate outpacing policies and procedures that prevent misuse and incorrect diagnoses.
Because the hand-held ultrasound market exploded so rapidly, the development of standardized examination protocols and appropriate training have not kept pace with demand. To address this issue, the most important way to prevent sonographic misdiagnoses for healthcare providers who are using ultrasound equipment is to advance access to education and training standards that ultimately provide the patient and healthcare community tangible evidence of competencies through independent third-party certification.
Making Standards Align With Access
Increased access to safe and economically-viable diagnostic imaging is a major step in improving global healthcare. POCUS education, training and practice standards must be accessible on a global scale, and certification programs need to ensure that education and training is universal across all clinics and hospitals. Fortunately, as more people become certified, there will also be more qualified trainers to further the education and training process. Patients need to feel confident that excellent ultrasound care is available wherever they go, and standard certification protocols are essential for achieving this.
The hand-held ultrasound is being proliferated across most clinical specialties, but training must keep up with the market demand. To improve access to training, certification standards and validation will be a critical aspect in this transformation of healthcare around the world. Third-party independent certification is necessary for the future of POCUS, and it’s something that can’t be ignored.
Dale Cyr is CEO and Executive Director at Inteleos, a non-profit certification organization that delivers rigorous assessments and cultivates a global community of professionals dedicated to the highest standards in healthcare and patient safety. He can be reached at Dale.Cyr@Inteleos.org