From the November 2020 issue of HealthCare Business News magazine
By Mustafa Hassan
Ultrasound scanners have streamlined over the years from being refrigerator-sized units in the 1980s to now being the size of a smartphone.
These handheld ultrasound systems, aside from having the benefit of being ultraportable, are also cheaper than larger console units and are increasingly able to offer sufficient image quality and performance for most routine exams and procedures. An increasingly diverse range of handheld scanners are coming to market, with some targeted at experienced ultrasound users in specific clinical specialties and others designed for more general imaging applications.
Their ultra-portability, relatively low cost, and ease of disinfection mean that they are in high demand to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, with the handheld ultrasound market forecast to increase by around 70% worldwide in 2020. While proving popular to combat COVID-19, there are still limitations to the widespread utilisation of handheld ultrasound in routine clinical practice. Despite the market being forecast to nearly double in size from 2020 to 2024, handhelds are only forecast to account for around 6% of the total ultrasound market in 2024, with consoles and compacts still taking the lion’s share.
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The barriers to mainstream use of handheld ultrasound are primarily cost, mindset, and education. The cost of handheld scanners has come down considerably in the last few years, to the extent that they are now at an affordable price point for most clinicians and physicians. The mindset has also improved, with medical students now learning how to use ultrasound during their training and thus, becoming more inclined to use the systems as they enter clinical practice. Moreover, the performance of handhelds has steadily improved over the years, both in terms of image quality and clinical utility. However, education remains a barrier, with many point-of-care clinicians lacking the technical ability to use handheld ultrasound. This is even more the case with primary care physicians. Two ways that technology can help overcome this barrier are with artificial intelligence (AI) and the use of teleultrasound.
AI –handheld ultrasound’s key enabler
AI is addressing the limitations of handheld ultrasound, and indeed, ultrasound in general, by helping the user to capture an ultrasound image, ensuring the quality of that image is sufficient and by assisting in the diagnostic analysis of the image. While ultrasound AI is still in the early stages of commercialisation, it will ultimately increase the number of new users of ultrasound by simplifying ease-of-use of the scanners.