Imaging technology has come an incredibly long way since ultrasounds first started to be widely available in the mid-1960s. Just take a look at a blurry, grainy, and pixelated ultrasound image of a baby in utero from the 90s and compare it to today’s perfectly crisp images that let you know if baby has daddy’s nose. As the technology has improved, it has also become more affordable over the years. And as our understanding of radiation has advanced, more and more people are opting for ultrasound over CT, x-rays, and PET scans. These advancements across the ultrasound world have opened up new possibilities in the field and have been shifting the way other imaging technologies are being employed.
Improved image quality has been the primary mover behind the shift that is occurring in this field. Previously, ultrasound images were so grainy and unclear that diagnoses were not always considered reliable. As a result, ultrasounds were not utilized as often as other diagnostic tools. But with the higher resolutions now available through ultrasounds, all of that is changing. Regarding this development, the director of Toshiba America Medical Systems’ ultrasound unit, Tomo Hasegawa, said, “With enhancement in computer technology doing real-time processing, we’re starting to get images that are so clear, people don’t even realize it’s ultrasound.”
Advancements in image quality have other repercussions as well. According to one study published in the Journal of Diagnostic Medical Sonography, ultrasound use results in better outcomes for patients practically across the board. This is because ultrasound technology is more easily accessible as it is often more portable than other imaging technologies. For example, when patients were being evaluated for aortic dissection, “TEE has been found to be equally as accurate as CT and MR imaging but with the added benefit of providing a more expeditious diagnosis and treatment.” This means that by using ultrasound technology, patients can be diagnosed and treated far more quickly which leads to decreased time spent in a hospital or clinic and more availability for new patients. With the staff shortages being faced by the healthcare industry, the importance of shorter wait times cannot be overstated.
As with all new technology, when first released the technology is the least advanced, but most expensive. As time passes, the technology improves and it tends to become more affordable. This is most obvious in technologies like phones and televisions. In the early 2000s, a big-screen TV could cost about $10,000 and would take up a quarter of your living room floor. Now, a TV with a similarly-sized screen and significantly better image quality sits mounted neatly on the wall and only costs about $500. Similarly, ultrasound technology has both improved in quality and decreased in cost.
With extremely high prices for care ranking among the top issues facing the health care system today, finding ways to lower costs is vital to making healthcare more affordable for everyone. Utilizing ultrasounds instead of other imaging technologies means lower prices for patients and healthcare facilities. According to a study published In the Journal of the American College of Radiology, “The substitution of MSK US [ultrasound] for MSK MRI [magnetic resonance imaging], when appropriate, would lead to savings of more than $6.9 billion in the period from 2006 to 2020.”
Another factor driving up the use of ultrasounds has to do with radiation. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) assures consumers that ultrasound imaging, “is based on non-ionizing radiation, so it does not have the same risks as X-rays or other types of imaging systems that use ionizing radiation.” In the information age, patients are more capable than ever of learning about their own health care and making informed decisions for themselves.
The risks presented by long or severe exposure to radiation have been widely circulated and consumed by the population at large. While the radiation from most medical imaging technologies is not strong enough and does not last long enough to cause significant damage, people are still wary. Knowing the possible risks, many are becoming reluctant to undergo x-rays, CT, or PET scans which expose patients to ionizing radiation. Due to this fear, ultrasounds are becoming the diagnostic tool of choice. Ultimately, exposing patients to less radiation can only be a good thing. Whether for actual or perceived health concerns, protecting patients and earning their trust is invaluable for healthcare professionals.
For many reasons, ultrasound use is on the rise. And as ultrasound devices become smaller and more portable, many in the healthcare world are even considering ultrasound for point-of-care use. There are so many benefits to implementing ultrasound over and above other kinds of imaging technologies available. Better image quality than ever before, quicker diagnosis, lower costs and less radiation exposure; ultrasound is the way of the future.