As telemedicine brings health care beyond hospital walls, medical devices are quickly following—like the portable ultrasound. Unlike traditional ultrasound machines or even unwieldy 10-pound laptop ultrasounds, the newest handheld telemedicine ultrasound to hit the market—the Butterfly iQ—fits easily in a doctor’s pocket, carries an affordable price tag, and promises to help EMTs and physicians diagnose patients in the field and en route to the hospital. Some experts are even hailing this development as the equivalent of the introduction of smartphones or tablets in the computing world, saying that we’re only beginning to see the implications of the mobile ultrasound.
The Butterfly iQ handheld ultrasound wand, introduced at last month’s CES 2019, is an FDA-cleared ultrasound technology that makes medical imaging more accessible at a fraction of the cost of older, bulky units. So far, the FDA clearance is only for medical-professional use, but Butterfly is working on artificial intelligence that will guide users in capturing images correctly with the hope that someday, patients can use the device on themselves without proper training. No external attachments or accessories are needed beyond an iPhone and ultrasound gel.
The significance of such a handheld telemedicine ultrasound is enormous for both diagnosis and treatment: Imaging provides a valuable tool for diagnosis, and ultrasound technology can create a force field to move objects inside the body without invasive surgery. Thanks to these abilities, prenatal checkups for moms-to-be who cannot travel long distances can now occur locally or even from their homes. In emergency situations, the ultrasound can be used to help a remote physician diagnose and treat the patient in transit to the hospital, saving considerable time—particularly when coming from rural areas. NASA can diagnose medical issues among astronauts on space flights, and medical diagnosis and treatment become more readily available on the military battlefield.
The concept of a handheld ultrasound is not new; Philips Lumify, SonoSite, MobiSante, and Clarius have handheld models already on the market. What makes the Butterfly iQ different are its affordability and its AI feature that will one day allow untrained users to manipulate the device and take good pictures. As this capability evolves, eventually a personal ultrasound reading could become as easy and common as a home blood-pressure cuff or glucose meter.
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