What Changed in Ultrasound During 2020?

Frost & Sullivan analysts offer their insights on how 2020 opened the door for greater telehealth functionality with ultrasound.

Much like with CT, the COVID-19 pandemic largely dominated the changes that happened this year with ultrasound technology. Across the country and the globe, healthcare providers have relied on cart-based and hand-held ultrasound technology to detect viral infection and manage patients who are confirmed COVID-19-positive.

But, what changes has the year brought about for ultrasound? Diagnostic Imaging spoke with Frost & Sullivan analysts Srikath Kompalli, program manager, and Suresh Kuppuswamy, industry principal—healthcare, about the most important advancements this year with the modality.

Diagnostic Imaging: What have been the most important developments throughout the year with ultrasound?

Kompalli: When you look at the impact side, I would say the regulatory aspects are one of the first things to grab my attention. There were regulatory approvals caught by big original equipment manufacturers, such as Philips or GE, in order to use their portable ultrasound systems along with the adoption of telehealth. So, that means you can use it in any part of the world. Any part of the scans can be presented to the best doctors around the world, and they can quickly see images, whether it’s between states or countries.

The telehealth aspect was one of the key factors involved with the ultrasound system that we have observed. A very fine example is Lumify from Philips that got an FDA approval to be at the forefront of the COVID-19 pandemic with workers. There is a telehealth app attached to it, and we see a lot more companies also starting to build that kind of functionality, giving their products that telehealth aspect, as well. Overall, the FDA process that usually takes six months to a year was pushed into about two or three weeks.

Kuppuswamy: Yes, COVID-19 accelerated the process of FDA approvals. To give an example, ultrasound is hugely operator-dependent in the sense that you have to have enough hours of training to hold the ultrasound probe in the right way to examine a patient. But, there are a couple of algorithms from Caption Health that brought in an artificial intelligence solution that enabled the operator to not have an expert level of training. They can have a minimum level of training. That was not possible earlier. These are the type of regulator approvals that cater to the market needs because there have been a lot of patients coming in and the clinician needs to be equipped with the right kind of tools.

Diagnostic Imaging: What, then, has been the impact on day-to-day activity and patient care when it comes to these changes in ultrasound this year?

Kompalli: When you think about the day-to-day activities or anything about a monthly hospital scenario, the procedural limbs were heavily hit. Because your radiology department will have intense procedure volumes in a month that goes between 100,000 toward a million in the bigger hospitals, and this will vary within the country and across modality. Under most circumstances, ultrasound is responsible for at least around 300 million procedures in the United States, and this year, it has literally been around half that because everything has been diverted to the emergency needs of COVID-19. But, for those ultrasounds that have been done, providers have to know how to do it quickly because it has to be point-of-care.

Because of this, even the procurement was hit. Generally, if you see ultrasound, it comes with three sub-segments. One is the handheld ultrasound system, the other one comes from the cart-based ultrasound system, and the third one is a laptop. Of all these, the cart-based had a business set of about 40 percent to 50 percent of sales. If a point-of-care system was not available, they immediately were able to switch to a portable ultrasound system where there’s literally a cost difference of about $20,000 to $30,000. So, those systems have been procured around it. Whatever leftover budgets the hospital had for the radiology department or the new budgets there were for the radiology department in the start of 2020, they tried to accumulate for ultrasound. So, the handheld ultrasound was given the first preference, then comes the portable, and then, the cart-based systems.

Finally, one trend which may probably come in 2021 with ultrasound is on either the portable side or on the point-of-care ultrasound side is the implementation towards telehealth aspects of the functionality. That will definitely come in the future because we don’t know what’s going to happen with COVID. Either there could be a second lockdown – whatever happens, you need to have some kind of telehealth aspects that have been put in place. We have seen that is it already aggressively getting incorporated with the ultrasound systems that are being produced.