Ultrasound in medical education is a powerful idea whose time has come. With its value in the clinical setting being increasingly recognized, leaders of a point-of-care ultrasound (POCUS) movement are making a strong case for introducing ultrasound early in medical training. Not only is it a useful educational tool to illustrate living anatomy and physiology, but it is also an important clinical skill- guiding procedure, improving diagnostic accuracy, and facilitating radiation-free disease monitoring. As the list of POCUS applications grows exponentially across specialties, I believe that to maximize the potential impact, it is vital to introduce this skillset early during the pleuripotent stem cell phase of a young doctor’s career.
Looking around, there are signs this movement is here to stay. Ten years after the first medical schools began integrating ultrasound into the curriculum, an AAMC report of US and Canadian schools stated that at least 101 offered some form of ultrasound education, with the majority including it into the first 2 years of the curriculum. If one visits the AIUM medical education portal (http://meded.aium.org/home), 77 medical schools list a faculty contact person involved with ultrasound curriculum development and integration.
It should be noted that the depth of content varies from school to school, as not all institutions value ultrasound to the same degree. Recommendations on core clinical ultrasound milestones for medical students have been published and results from a forthcoming international consensus conference will help improve standardization, though there will likely be much variability until it is required by LCME or included on board exams.
It is during this time of transition that the importance of ultrasound interest groups (USIGs) cannot be understated. USIGs provide a wider degree of flexibility often not possible within a formal curriculum, quickly adapting for changes not only for meeting times and group sizes but also topics and teaching strategies. Indeed, for schools without a formal ultrasound curriculum, it is often how one gets started. For ultrasound faculty, USIGs provide fertile ground for experimenting with new teaching ideas and cultivating both student and faculty enthusiasm for POCUS at one’s institution. For senior students, USIGs can provide opportunities to participate in research projects, serve as near-peer instructors, and participate at regional and international meetings. The spread of local, student-run Ultrafest symposiums is a testament to the power ultrasound has to draw people in and the impact students can have beyond their own institution. The AIUM National USIG (http://www.nationalusig.com/) provides a nice resource for further collaboration while student competitions like AIUM’s Sonoslam or SUSME’s Ultrasound World Cup showcase ultrasound talent and teamwork in an anti-burnout, fun environment. I have no doubt that some of these exceptionally motivated students will become future leaders in the field, as some already have (http://www.sonomojo.org/).
While many of these students will pursue and jumpstart their careers in Emergency and Critical Care Medicine, students from varying backgrounds and interests are needed in USIGs. The frontier of Primary Care ultrasound is wide open and may become crucial as we see more emphasis on population medicine and cost containment as opposed to fee-for-service models. With the exception of in the ER, the utilization of pediatric ultrasound has been surprisingly lagging and more POCUS champions are certainly needed here. In addition, the early exposure to POCUS can increase comfort with ultrasound and help drive novel developments by future specialists. Some lesser-known potential examples include advancing work already underway: gastric ultrasound for aspiration risk by anesthesiologists, sinusitis and tonsillar abscess drainage for ENTs, diagnosing and setting fractures for orthopedists, noninvasively measuring intracranial pressure by ophthalmologists and neurologists, and detecting melanoma metastasis by dermatologists. Until it is more widespread, a skillset in POCUS can be a helpful way to distinguish oneself in an application process and provides an excellent academic niche. After medical school, some USIG students will go on to form ultrasound interest groups in their specialty organizations, going beyond carving out a special area of interest for themselves and helping to advance the field and shape future policies.
Similar to other enriching things like viewing art and discussing philosophy, I believe all students should be exposed to ultrasound and given the opportunity to learn this skill. While I feel strongly that ultrasound should be a mandatory component of an undergraduate curriculum, I also recognize that not all will enjoy and excel in it, and many will settle for nothing more than the bare minimum. However, I believe the USIGs help us to motivate and empower those few individuals with the passion and grit to really help propel this movement forward and show the world what is possible. This is truly an exciting time. I hope you will join us.
Are you a member of an ultrasound interest group? Has it improved your skill set? Comment below or let us know on Twitter: @AIUM_Ultrasound.
Michael Wagner, MD, FACP, RDMS, is an Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine in Columbia. There he serves as the Director of Internal Medicine Ultrasound Education for the residency program, Assistant Director of Physical Diagnosis for the undergraduate curriculum, and faculty advisor to the student ultrasound interest group. You can view his 2017 talk for the USCSOM USIG here (https://youtu.be/FfO7SXRwjLY) and an AIUM webinar with Janice Boughton on a pocket ultrasound physical exam here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ywuIeoEfG1I).