What Is a Portable Ultrasound Machine?

What Is a Portable Ultrasound Machine?

Among the most impactful, game-changing technologies in modern medicine, the ultrasound machine has come a long way since the first sonogram was performed over 50 years ago. Using ultrasound was originally conceptualized and developed by a team including, a University of Glasgow professor, an obstetrician, an industrial engineer, and others. (It’s a really interesting backstory, which is detailed in this article from The Smithsonian).

Even in its earliest form, ultrasound technology was groundbreaking. By adapting an innovation that was originally developed for factories and shipyards (checking for material flaws in welding operations), the sonogram as we know it was born. Even in its rudimentary 1950’s form, ultrasound allowed doctors and patients to see what previously seemed impossible. For example, they could discern a fetal image, providing a view into something that was, until now, practically invisible.

In the beginning, the machines required to generate these types of images were not widely available. This was due to factors ranging from their cost to the practical matter of how to effectively use such technology. Next, there was the matter of educating patients and helping them to understand and trust the images they were seeing. Here’s how The Smithsonian describes it:

“Displacing embodied maternal knowledge in favor of scientific rationalization delivered by external machinery was resisted by some who saw it as part of a larger project of medicalization of pregnancy and birth that usurped a pregnant person’s own intuition.”

In other words, while ultrasound indeed offered new ways of understanding the human body, it received skepticism from some at first, since replacing maternity instincts with verified images may have felt odd to some.

Fast forward to the 21st century. It’s safe to say that ultrasound technology has come a long, long way. There are several types of specialized scans that can now be performed. In addition, the required machinery is much less expensive (and thereby more accessible) for hospitals, emergency departments, and other locations to have on-hand.

In this article, we’ll be discussing the most common challenges of ultrasound. We’ll also outline how modern solutions like portable/handheld ultrasound machines help hospitals to streamline their workflows, reduce costs, and provide consistent and timely patient diagnosis and care.

What Are the Advantages of Ultrasound?

One of the biggest advantages of ultrasound technology is its ever-increasing versatility. To illustrate this, consider the following list of conditions that can be effectively detected by ultrasound:

  • Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm
  • Appendicitis
  • Biliary Colic and Cholecystitis
  • Bowel Obstruction and Perforation
  • Decreased Cardiac Ejection Fraction and Presence of Pericardial Effusion
  • Deep Venous Thrombosis
  • Elevated Intracranial Pressure
  • Hydronephrosis
  • Intraperitoneal Bleeding in Trauma
  • Obstetric and Gynecologic Conditions (such as Ectopic Pregnancy)
  • Respiratory Distress
  • Retinal Detachment
  • Skin and Soft Tissue Infections
  • Foreign Bodies

For hospitals, emergency departments, and other providers of ultrasound, there are at least five additional advantages of a portable ultrasound machine over imaging alternatives (like CT scans, for example), which we’ll discuss throughout this article:

  1. It doesn’t use dangerous ionizing radiation
  2. It’s widely available and accessible
  3. It’s easy to adopt, use, and interpret
  4. It’s cost-effective
  5. It’s capable of real-time imaging

There are no real disadvantages to ultrasound technology. In addition to the diverse applications and benefits we’ve discussed so far, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notes that “ultrasound imaging has been used for over 20 years and has an excellent safety record.”

As they go on to note, the development and use of ultrasound falls right in line with the organization’s Initiative to Reduce Unnecessary Radiation Exposure from Medical Imaging.

What Are the 2 Types of Ultrasounds, and What Are They Used For?

There are two types of ultrasounds: diagnostic and therapeutic.

Diagnostic ultrasounds are performed to detect pathology (e.g., checking on pregnancies). Therapeutic scans are procedures done under ultrasound guidance.

What Are Some Examples of Diagnostic Ultrasound Imaging?

Diagnostic imaging can identify signs of specific conditions affecting individual organs or body systems, and fetuses. Ultrasounds can effectively examine and diagnose a wide range of conditions, such as the following:

  • Bladder
  • Brain
  • Eyes
  • Gallbladder
  • Heart and/or blood vessels
  • Hips and/or spine
  • Kidneys
  • Liver
  • Pancreas
  • Reproductive organs
  • Spleen
  • Thyroid and/or parathyroid glands
  • Pregnancy
  • Vascular (blood vessels, veins, arteries, etc.)

What Is the Most Common Type of Ultrasound?

While there isn’t readily-available data around the total numbers of different ultrasound scan types being performed, pelvic ultrasounds for pregnancies are ubiquitous at this point.

For many people, a pregnancy sonogram is synonymous with “ultrasound.” Not only are pelvic ultrasound scans performed for expectant mothers, but they can also be used to examine organs such as the uterus, ovaries, bladder, and prostate gland.

How Many Types of Ultrasound Machines Are There?

From a very high-level view, there are three types: stationary (or console-based) machines that aren’t easily portable, cart-based systems, and handheld (or point-of-care) ultrasound machines.

While their basic uses are similar, modern portable ultrasound machines offer a number of compelling advantages over their stationary, on-premise counterparts. These include the ability to generate high-quality imaging without depending on a single machine’s availability. This advantage alone can have an incredible impact on facilities’ ability to provide timely and efficient patient care.

Why Are Ultrasound Devices So Expensive?

If there’s one question that’s frequently asked by hospitals, emergency departments, and other ultrasound providers, it’s “How much does a good ultrasound machine cost?” This question, though, begs a pair of additional questions, such as:

  • “How much does a hospital ultrasound machine cost?” The answer to this question is going to vary based on the machine itself, including the capabilities it provides for the price point. That being said, many low- and medium-tier, standard ultrasound machines can cost anywhere from $40,000 to $200,000—and some may run even higher. As a point of comparison, the American Academy of Physician Associates (AAPA) notes that standard machines cost around 15 times as much as a portable or point-of-care ultrasound (POCUS).
  • “What makes an ultrasound machine ‘good’?” This is a truly loaded question, as the answer must balance the need to reduce costs with the need for reliable, high-performing technology. Some of the most common or obvious factors that impact price will include:
    • The manufacturer, brand, and model
    • Types of ultrasound probes being purchased
    • Range of functions/applications
    • Age/condition, if evaluating a refurbished model

Depending on the application or location, additional factors to consider when evaluating ultrasound machine options include:

  • T__he types of images the ultrasound machine can produce__. Common modes include:

    • A-mode, which is technically not an image, but a 1-dimensional depiction of how the ultrasounds’ waves are reflected.
    • B-mode or “2B” mode, which displays a 2-dimensional image of a scanned organ or body part.
    • M-mode, which produces an ordered series of images in order to illuminate movement or amplitude.
    • Real-time spatial compound imaging, which generates images from multiple angles to create more of a 3-dimensional view.
    • Color and Pulse Wave Doppler imaging, which aids cardiologists in visualizing and analyzing blood flow and vascular health.
    • Elastography, which visualizes tissue-related conditions.
    • 3D/4D imaging, which can provide a 3-dimensional image of a developing fetus as well as the ability to monitor movements.
  • The machine’s physical dimensions. With the advent of portable and point-of-care ultrasound devices, modern ultrasound devices are more cost-effective than their stationary counterparts. Portable ultrasound technology helps to mitigate the logistical challenges of scheduling and interpreting scans around a single, stationary ultrasound machine. Portable ultrasound and handheld devices are smaller and lighter, making them well worth the investment.

  • Screen size and image quality. While screen size might not seem like a high-priority consideration, a larger screen makes it easier for medical professionals and patients to really understand exactly what might be causing whatever a patient is experiencing. When it comes to displaying ultrasound scans for evaluation and interpretation, a higher-quality image leads to efficient, confident diagnosis, reducing the chance of a scan being misinterpreted. Among the image-based factors that impact an ultrasound’s price are its resolution and brightness in some cases—and if it can easily export the image to the necessary documentation systems.

  • Battery life. For point-of-care and portable devices, battery life is especially important.

  • Warranty duration and technical support. Different ultrasound manufacturers will offer their own warranty duration, service contracts, and technical support methods. When considering the purchase of an ultrasound, you’ll want to inquire about the level of service and support you’ll receive.

Is There Such a Thing as a Portable Ultrasound Machine?

Indeed, there is! Regarding traditional ultrasound equipment, a study published by Diagnostics found that “despite their diagnostic usefulness…high-end ultrasound systems are expensive, can be difficult to transport, and are often only available at highly specialized hospital wards.” In other words, the technology has been useful but cumbersome.

The same study notes that “the fast development of hand-held ultrasound devices could potentially make them a game-changer in the availability and cost of ultrasound examinations." At Exo, we are committed to developing innovative imaging solutions for modern healthcare providers and their patients, including point-of-care and portable ultrasound technology that can streamline workflows and enable timely patient care.

What Are Portable Ultrasound Machines Used For?

Portable or point-of-care ultrasound (POCUS) machines have been in use since 1998, when the first prototype emerged. Since their inception, these devices’ capabilities have continued to improve—and show very little sign of slowing down.

Portable and handheld ultrasound devices are used for the same purposes as their traditional, stationary counterparts—pregnancy evaluation, abdominal scans, and vascular assessment, as well as many other uses both established and emerging in medical practice. These modern ultrasound devices mitigate the most-pressing challenges posed by stationary, on-premises ultrasound machines, primarily:

  • Ease of use
  • The ability to keep costs low
  • The ability to develop efficient processes and workflows for ordering, administering, and interpreting ultrasound scans

Next, we’ll explore how portable ultrasound machines work—and how they can reduce costs and improve imaging workflows.

How Does a Portable Ultrasound Machine Work?

There is generally a five-step process for conducting a scan with a portable ultrasound device.

  1. To start, the patient needs to be prepared for the procedure. This means removing any jewelry that might be in the way, and either removing/adjusting clothing or changing into a gown before the scan. Here, the patient can also be educated about what to expect next.
  2. Next, the medical professional readies the area to be scanned. This includes the application of a safe, water-based lubricating gel (or “ultrasound solution”) to the appropriate area of a patient’s skin. Since ultrasound waves don’t travel through air well, this gel works to reduce the amount of air between the patient and the ultrasound probe or transducer. This effectively reduces acoustic impedance and reflection to allow for a clearer image to be generated.
  3. The technician or sonographer then presses the transducer—a small, handheld probe—against the area to be scanned. Sound waves are sent into the body and are captured as they bounce back to the transducer. The sonographer will move the transducer around to capture enough images to present a full picture of what may be happening inside the patient’s body.
  4. The probe is then slowly moved over the relevant area(s) of the patient’s body, to develop a detailed view inside the body’s systems and send images to a computer for further evaluation and analysis.
  5. Finally, the healthcare professional will discuss the results with the patient and determine what next steps the patient’s diagnosis or treatment may require.

Are Portable Ultrasound Machines Any Good?

For practitioners and patients alike, portable ultrasound machines provide an efficient and productive process for scheduling and performing ultrasound imaging scans.

How Accurate Is Portable Ultrasound?

A recent Scientific Reports article compared modern POCUS devices with high-end traditional ultrasounds, ultimately finding that:

  • There were “no significant differences [...] found between the measurements obtained with the handheld ultrasound machine and those with the high-end sonographic machine.”
  • Despite only costing around one-fifteenth as much as a standard ultrasound machine, portable ultrasound “showed adequate accuracy and performance,” representing comparable results/outcomes despite the much lower investment cost.

This same study ultimately concluded that portable ultrasound’s “accuracy, reliability and performance ascertained encourage the use of this new handheld sonographic machine.”

Are There Additional Advantages of Portable and Point-of-Care Ultrasound?

By virtually every measure listed above, point-of-care and portable ultrasound options tend to provide the most value. They offer a range of benefits and capabilities suitable for hospitals, emergency rooms, and a myriad of other locations. Not only are these devices more accessible and cost-effective, but they also enable a wide range of personnel—not just doctors—to be trained in their use.

This means individuals like nurses, advanced care providers, and resident/attending physicians, among others, can perform scans. In turn, they’re able to greatly increase the efficiency by which ultrasounds can be scheduled, performed, and interpreted.

Additional advantages of POCUS include:

  • Affordability: With portable ultrasound options costing as little as one-fifteenth as much as traditional ultrasound equipment, it represents incredible value.
  • Convenience: Especially when paired with the right software, a portable ultrasound technology can optimize the workflows that come with scheduling, performing, and documenting the results of an ultrasound scan. Portable ultrasound also means scans can be performed at the point of care, rather than requiring a physician to refer their patient to a separate location, where scans are scheduled as the equipment becomes available.
  • Safety: The capability to provide a safe, non-invasive option can be the difference between a hesitant patient showing up for their scheduled scan or turning into a no-show.
  • Speed: Performing an ultrasound using portable or point-of-care equipment only takes a few minutes, meaning only minimal time between a scan being scheduled, performed, and interpreted.

Does the emergence of portable ultrasound mean other forms of care—like regular physical examinations or radiology services—are no longer needed? This, of course, is not the purpose of portable ultrasound or POCUS. Rather, portable ultrasound serves as a perfect complement to these other services.

How Much Does a Portable Ultrasound Cost?

A portable or point-of-care ultrasound machine will generally range from $8,000 to $10,000, but some manufacturers intend to make them even more cost-effective.

Are There Any Disadvantages to Portable Ultrasound?

For the most part, portable ultrasound equipment is just as accurate and effective as the much more cost-prohibitive standard ultrasound. That being said, handheld ultrasounds could take a little bit longer to scan and review findings if the person providing the scan isn’t well-versed on the equipment and how it works. According to a Scientific Reports comparative study:

“[M]ean and maximum times required for the acquisition of all sonographic parameters were 18 and a half minutes and 25 minutes for the handheld sonographic machine, and 9 and a half minutes and 15 minutes for the high-end sonographic machine.”

The cited study does note distinct reasons to account for scans taking longer with handheld devices vs. conventional equipment. In addition to the need to manually move the transducer appropriately enough to capture a full set of images, factors such as wireless connection speed/quality or battery charge/capacity can also play a role. As qualified professionals learn to use the equipment and recent innovations in POCUS devices become more widespread to address areas for further improvement, the process will certainly quicken over time. However, the current disadvantages of many handheld ultrasound machines include a lack of specialty probes and a lack of advanced ultrasound features such as elastography.

Exo: At the Forefront of Portable Ultrasound

At Exo, we’re working to empower healthcare providers with an innovative approach to ultrasound technology that can elevate their level of care, reduce costs, and increase efficiency.

Realizing that the workflows that accompany ultrasound imaging—from scheduling through performing scans and interpreting their results—can be just as cumbersome as traditional, stationary ultrasound machinery, we’re working to develop transformational solutions to optimize processes in a way that elevates the standard of care and reduces costs, all while mitigating physician burnout.

Our Exo Works™ platform provides healthcare providers with a mobile-first, secure cloud-based POCUS workflow solution that simplifies and streamlines the process into four steps

  1. Scanning the patient with any DICOM-enabled ultrasound machine.
  2. Reviewing and documenting your findings in seconds.
  3. Automatically saving to EMR and PACS for accurate billing and secure storage.
  4. Securely distributing and accessing exam results remotely.

Our vision is simple: “The development of a future healthcare system that’s unconstrained by the four walls of a hospital and engineered for a world where providers can see clearly into every patient immediately.”

To learn more, visit our Exo Works webpage.