Since their invention in 1816, stethoscopes have been an indispensable tool in the practice of medicine. Inexpensive and easy to use, these simple devices allow doctors to diagnose patients by listening to the sounds produced by their body.
An article from CBS News reveals, however, that stethoscopes might soon be set aside in favor of portable ultrasound devices. While the article does make it clear that not every Tacoma urgent care physician might soon be throwing their stethoscopes in the trash, it does provide an exciting view of the possible future of healthcare.
Until recently, ultrasounds have predominantly been used to examine fetuses in pregnant women. Dr. Jagat Narula and Dr. Bret Nelson, associate dean for global affairs and associate professor of emergency medicine, respectively, at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, noted in a December 2013 editorial that the technology can also be used to completely replace the stethoscope.
An ultrasound provides physicians with a detailed, real-time visual representation of internal organs without requiring surgery. The technology uses sound pressure waves emitted into a person’s body to create images of its internal structure in the same way that sonar is used to map the ocean floor. This ability to “see” into the body is the ultrasound’s most obvious advantage over the stethoscope—allowing physicians to see things they might otherwise miss.
Unlike other non-invasive techniques for imaging internal organs, an ultrasound does not use radiation, which can increase the risk of genetic mutation, leading to cancer. The technology is also suited for miniaturization and can be built into devices no bigger than a smartphone.
The article notes that there are disadvantages to using ultrasound. However, most of them are related to issues that can be addressed in time. First, ultrasound devices are far more expensive than stethoscopes and can set physicians back by a minimum of $10,000. These costs are expected to drop as the miniaturization of ultrasound technology is better understood, and competition in manufacturing and marketing smaller ultrasound devices increases.
The fact that most physicians aren’t currently equipped to understand some subtle details on ultrasound images is another current disadvantage that can be addressed over time. The article notes that reading ultrasound images can be included in the training that all doctors get so that the next generation of doctors will understand how to take full advantage of the technology.
There is no doubt that, when ultrasounds finally completely replace stethoscopes, the change will have a positive effect on the healthcare provided by all medical facilities, including U.S. HealthWorks Medical Group centers. By enabling Tacoma walk-in clinic doctors to better diagnose their patients, the use of ultrasounds will result in better patient outcomes.
(Source: Are stethoscopes going the way of the dodo?, CBS News, January 24, 2014)