Internal Medicine and Bedside Ultrasound–A Match Made in Heaven

I am an internist who does bedside ultrasound. This has not always been true. From 1986, when I got my MD from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, to November 2011, I was a traditional internist, taking care of a panel of patients in a small university town in Idaho. I saw my patients in the office when they could walk or wheel in with their problems and in the hospital when they were sicker. I took call for my partners on rotating weekends and holidays. I occasionally ordered ultrasounds and echocardiograms and thought of them as blurry representations of internal structures that could be magically interpreted by radiologists.

In 2011, events such as the growing up of our 2 children allowed me to reconsider my choices of what to do with my MD. I had always wanted to do medicine in resource-poor settings overseas. I had often been curious about locum tenens work in other states, which would involve adventure and exposure to new practice styles and surprisingly generous compensation compared to my predominantly outpatient practice. I also had an urge to binge on continuing medical education courses, which I had denied myself for years due to responsibilities at home.

Janice Boughton, MD

One of the CME courses I treated myself to was an introductory course in emergency ultrasound through Harvard/Massachusetts General Hospital. It was wonderfully taught and I was immediately hooked. Ultrasound at the bedside would transform my practice and had the potential to transform the whole practice of internal medicine! The Cupid of bedside ultrasound had sunk his arrow straight between my eyes.

I went on to take more courses in bedside ultrasound both in person and online and bought myself a small pocket ultrasound which rapidly developed my imaging skills. I began to use ultrasound clinically as a diagnostic tool within weeks of my first exposure. I discovered over-expanded bladders, failing hearts, pleural effusions, ascites, or lack thereof in my patients with big bellies. I became a better doctor, and enjoyed my job more. My patients were happy to have benefitted from what looked to them like Star Trek technology.

I expected at any point that someone in the diverse hospitals where I served as a locum tenens hospitalist would ask for my credentials or forbid me to use ultrasound. I expected skepticism by cardiologists with whom I worked. I expected radiologists to be upset at me. I even did a 1-month UC Irvine mini-fellowship and ARDMS certification as a sonographer. These experiences gave me a vast amount more expertise and confidence, but were mostly to ward off imagined disapproval. Yet nobody ever made me present my certification. Nobody disapproved to my face except one radiologist, who I’m still working on. Cardiology consultants were tickled to get imaging information in addition to history and vital signs. I may have benefitted from being in hospitals where people were too busy taking care of patients to fuss with me. It really seemed, though, that the vast majority of people with whom I worked realized that I was a better doctor with an ultrasound than without.

I have gone on to teach bedside ultrasound and participate in research on malaria and schistosomiasis with medical students in Tanzania. I have taught basic ultrasound to overburdened healthcare workers and physicians from Doctors Without Borders in South Sudan during its ongoing civil war. Knowing how to teach basic bedside ultrasound means I am valuable in resource poor settings even if I can only stay for a couple of weeks. I have been able to teach my internal medicine colleagues in the US along with residents and medical students, which has been a wonderful opportunity for a nonacademic rural physician.

So what’s my point here? As an “early adopter” of bedside ultrasound in internal medicine I have made myself a test case. So far these are the results:

  1. It wasn’t too hard to learn enough ultrasound to be a better doctor.
  2. There was never a time when I was too much of a novice to benefit from bedside imaging, yet every time I ultrasound a patient I learn something new. I can’t foresee a time when my learning will be complete.
  3. There has been surprisingly little push-back and a gratifying amount of appreciation.
  4. Bedside ultrasound is the perfect extension of the physical exam in internal medicine. It brought back my joy in physical diagnosis. We should all be doing it!

 

Have you used ultrasound in your internal medicine practice? Have you gone after ultrasound education after obtaining your degree? How can medical education be modified to encourage the widespread use of ultrasound by future internists? Comment below or let us know on Twitter: @AIUM_Ultrasound.

Janice Boughton, MD, is an internist working as a staff Hospitalist at Gritman Medical center as well as is a locum tenens physician at other northwest hospitals. She also supervises and serves in rural health clinics, and blogs about bedside ultrasound and other issues at http://whyisamericanhealthcaresoexpensive.blogspot.com/?m=1.

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