I didn’t come into medicine knowing much about what doctors really did. I also didn’t graduate my emergency medicine residency really believing point-of-care ultrasound (POCUS) was all that useful. Maybe it’s just a fad, I remember thinking.
There were two things I did come to enjoy about medicine: making interesting diagnoses and intervening in ways that helped patients. Those were the victories and they were always more satisfying when I got to do them as independently as possible. It was great to diagnose appendicitis with a CT scan, but I had to share at least some of the credit with the radiologist.
I remember sometimes being frustrated with the fragmentation of care in American medicine. Send the patient to another facility with these services, order this imaging study by this specialist, consult this specialist for this procedure, and so on.
A few cases early in my career really brought to light these frustrations.
One was a young woman who didn’t speak English who presented to our community hospital who appeared to have abdominal pain. It took hours after getting approval to call in a sonographer, consulting with the radiologist, and eventually calling in the gynecologist from home to take her to the operating room for her ruptured ectopic pregnancy. Hours went by while her condition worsened and I felt helpless, being uncertain about her diagnosis and relying on fragmented, incomplete information from others to make management decisions. Luckily, her youth allowed her to escape unscathed, but I was frustrated with what I didn’t know and couldn’t provide for her: a rapid, accurate diagnosis and quick definitive action.
In another case, a young boy was transferred to our tertiary care center for possible septic hip arthritis and waited nearly 24 hours to undergo more ED imaging, subspecialty consultation, then wait for the availability of the pediatric interventional radiologist to perform X-ray guided hip aspiration with procedural sedation. I remember again feeling helpless and seeing the hopelessness in the eyes of his parents after seeing so many doctors, spending so many hours far from home just waiting on someone to tell them what was wrong with their son and what was going to be done to help him.
After I was asked to lead POCUS education for our residency program and began to embrace it as a clinical tool, I encountered similar cases, but now with much more satisfying experiences for me as a physician, and hopefully, presumably for my patients. Now, I routinely hear stories from my residents and colleagues that go something like Hey Joe, check out this ectopic case, ED to OR in 20 minutes with bedside ultrasound. We have had cases of suspected hip arthritis where we were able to provide a diagnosis and care plan from the ED in 2–3 hours by performing bedside US-guided hip arthrocentesis. These and numerous other cases where diagnoses are made in minutes independently by the treating clinician have convinced me that POCUS can help improve healthcare. My colleagues and I have performed diagnostic and therapeutic procedures that we never would have considered attempting before we could competently use POCUS, allowing us to provide immediate care right where and when the patients needed it.
The “passing fad” of POCUS has allowed me to make medicine and being a doctor more into what I wanted it to be: seeing patients, giving them a diagnosis, decreasing the anxiety over uncertainty, and providing relief for their suffering. I trained and practiced without the advantages of ultrasound and I have seen the positive impact it can have not only on patients but also on the health care system and my job satisfaction as well. The advantages of more immediate, efficient diagnoses, better availability of advanced procedures can all be provided in a less fragmented, more cost-effective manner when treating clinicians are armed with and properly trained to use POCUS. There’s no way I would ever go back.
If you learned how to use ultrasound after you completed your original medical education, how did it affect your career? Comment below or let us know on Twitter: @AIUM_Ultrasound.
Joseph J. Minardi, MD, is Chief of Emergency and Clinical Ultrasound, and Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine and Medical Education at the West Virginia University School of Medicine.