Getting started with point-of-care ultrasound (POCUS) is like taking a vacation in Bali, Bermuda, or the Bahamas. Let’s say you’ve landed in an exotic destination and plan to rent a car to explore the island. After collecting your keys, what’s next? Jump in the vehicle and peel off to the beach? Of course not – you’ll take a minute to consider the controls of your car, where you’re going, and how you’ll get there. POCUS is no different from a dream island visit.
In an unfamiliar vehicle, it’s normal to become acquainted with the controls. You want to know how to turn on the car’s lights and wipers and position the mirrors and windows appropriately. There’s a direct analog in performing a POCUS study. The operator has to select the correct transducer and examination preset before getting started. If it’s a machine you’re not familiar with, you need to take a moment to locate essential controls such as depth and gain. Even if the machine is familiar, you need to optimize those settings to ensure you can obtain quality images, just as you would with the mirrors in your car.
It’s also second-hand nature to adjust a car for comfort. The seats and steering wheel need to be positioned so you have a comfortable trip, and the climate settings arranged for passenger comfort. For a successful POCUS scan, the same steps should happen. Both the operator and the patient should be comfortable and positioned correctly. That means adjusting the bed, lowering the side rails, and placing the patient and machine where you can obtain adequate images while ensuring no one has to be a contortionist.
Taking a car on the road on unfamiliar roads can be stressful, and more so if you’re not used to driving on the left. If driving on the opposite side of the road is unfamiliar, it’s smart to visualize how you will be oriented on the road and during turns before heading out on the road. Successful POCUS users have the same habit: they understand where the indicator marker is on both the screen and the transducer before acquiring images. Failing to do so leads to confusion and a breakdown of pattern recognition, just as driving on the left might.
With the car and orientation controls sorted, you’re still not going to fire up the engine yet. Most travelers take a moment to figure out where they’re headed, with a GPS or map. The sonologist needs to take the same step, remembering the focused question they’re trying to answer with the POCUS study, and what they need to see to be satisfied. While you might be happy to ramble aimlessly in a car, POCUS scans should stay focused.
Of course, this assumes that renting a car is the best way to get around the island. Maybe you’d be better served by a taxi, bus, or boat. Or maybe after seeing the rental vehicle, you decide the car can’t accommodate your plans. In the same vein, not all clinical questions can be answered with POCUS. An alternative imaging modality or comprehensive ultrasound may be the test you need, and it’s OK to change your mind and decide you need something else after you perform the scan.
POCUS is rewarding and helps both clinicians and patients, but isn’t always easy. Think of POCUS like the start of a vacation, and you may find your studies are easier, and a bit closer to a holiday in the sun.
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David Mackenzie, MDCM, is an emergency physician at Maine Medical Center, in Portland, Maine. Follow Dr Mackenzie on Twitter @mackendc.