This is a guest post by Clarius Mobile Health co-founder, Dave Willis.
In the developed world and city centers, we often take medical imaging tools like ultrasound and X-ray for granted. Yet despite their clear value, in many remote communities and rural areas of developing countries, such basic tools are not easily available and quality of care suffers.
There’s no question there are particular challenges in such low-resource settings for many popular medical imaging devices to be effective. I believe that ultrasound is the technology that is best poised to meet these hurdles.
For example, with X-Ray and CT Scanning, it’s imperative to minimize radiation dangers to staff and patients. This requires specially-designed rooms with insulated walls that greatly reduce radiation fallout. In the rural developing world, such spaces are rarely available.
That is precisely what makes ultrasound a compelling choice in these environments. Compared to the alternatives, ultrasound is an extremely safe form of imaging, with no known side effects. Its inherent safety means it can be used in many different settings and also for many different applications. For instance, ultrasound is the only imaging modality deemed safe enough for pre-natal scanning. This versatility is a huge benefit in low-resource environments where often merely having a viable imaging option can greatly improve standard of care.
Another issue in low-resource settings is the scarcity of medical expertise; a single generalist practitioner might be responsible for an entire village’s healthcare needs. In such settings, highly specialized medical training is often an unaffordable luxury.
Medical imaging is generally complex, and mastery of an imaging technology can take years of education – ultrasound included. Fortunately, the burgeoning discipline of “point-of-care ultrasound” – the use of ultrasound by non-specialists – has proven that the basics can be taught to generalist practitioners much more quickly, often in a matter of weeks. Again, this movement is the result of ultrasound’s safety and versatility – there has been no similar trend in other imaging modalities.
Another hurdle is that the device must be robust and easy to transport to harsh and demanding areas. This could encompass a number of things, including portability, ruggedness and the ability to function without access to stable electricity.
X-Ray, CT and MRI machines fail to meet these criteria, because they are typically large, heavy and meant to be used in a controlled environment. In contrast, ultrasound machines come in varying degrees of portability, from cart-based systems to fully handheld devices. Many of these can be powered by rechargeable batteries. Since ultrasound is a simple technology – using high-pitched sound waves to locate organs in the body – it can be delivered in a compact, self-contained package.
In particular, the new Clarius handheld scanner has been designed to maximize portability and ease of use. The scanner is completely wireless and uses an Android/iOS smart device as the display. It is easily portable since it has no wires, weighs about 1lb and can easily fit in a large pocket. It also has a full magnesium casing which makes it more likely to survive drops and is fully submersible in water.
While we expect our scanners will make a difference wherever they are used, they have the potential to have an especially large social impact in rural areas of developing nations. Our hope is that ultrasound will ultimately be available to all who need it, regardless of where they live.
Dave Willis has over 30 years of experience as a healthcare tech executive and entrepreneur. He co-founded Clarius to develop a handheld, wireless, mobile-based ultrasound scanner that can be used in a variety of environments.