LETTER: Point-of-Care Ultrasound: The (Sound) Wave of the Future for Hospitalists


Small devices carried in pockets during rounds can enable hospitalists to make quick decisions at the bedside, enhance and teach physical exam skills, streamline patient flow through the hospital, and potentially avoid the cost and risk of exposure to radiation. Point-of-care (POC) ultrasound enhances both patient satisfaction and the clinician’s professional satisfaction. Hospital medicine will be the next field to rapidly assimilate its use.

POC, or “bedside,” ultrasound has been used by ob-gyns, vascular access, and procedural teams for quite some time. Of late, emergency medicine and critical care physicians have adopted its use. It offers the advantage of gaining immediate information regarding the patient through dynamic imaging and the ability to integrate that information into the clinical picture. This enables providers to make decisions about patient care in real time.

With the advent of affordable handheld devices with quality images, rounding with these devices has become practical for hospitalists. Hospitalists should rapidly embrace this skill set. POC ultrasound can be very useful to quickly improve patient diagnosis, patient satisfaction, patient safety, length of stay, and provider satisfaction.

For example, in patients complaining of dyspnea, for which there is not a clear diagnosis of COPD, congestive heart failure, pulmonary embolism, or pneumonia, a focused cardiac ultrasound can rapidly differentiate between right ventricular dysfunction, left ventricular dysfunction, pericardial effusion, or a hyperdynamic heart. Lung ultrasound with diffuse or focal “B lines,” focal consolidation, and/or pleural effusion can assist in differentiating the cause as well.

POC ultrasound also is a teaching tool that can enhance exam skills. Hospitalists can confirm exam findings and teach as they palpate the liver or percuss the chest. Performing a procedure such as paracentesis or a central line with ultrasound guidance is now considered standard of care in some centers. The literature shows ultrasound guidance is safer even when compared to clinicians skilled in landmark techniques. In addition, many hospitalists and/or trainees will work in areas where 24-7 echo, interventional radiologists, and ultrasound techs are not available. Hospitalists need to know how to use POC ultrasound to serve patients well.

POC ultrasound can also be used in daily care. For heart failure patients, watching the B lines (pulmonary edema), pleural effusions, and inferior vena cava size can avoid over- or under-diuresis and reduce length of stay and cost. The same can be said for patients with percutaneous catheters to ensure proper drainage of the pockets of fluid in the chest or abdomen.

It is important to know the limitations of POC ultrasound. It is best used to answer binary questions (e.g., pericardial effusion present or not). It is a skill to be acquired and honed, and it requires specialized training. There are many one- to two-day courses as well simulators and other means. The basics of image acquisition and interpretation can be found online, and much of it is free. Manufacturers often are willing to provide machines to practice with.

Many patients enjoy seeing the images and having a better understanding of their disease process, which leads to improved patient satisfaction. Overall, there are many benefits for hospitalists.

Gordon Johnson, MD, hospitalist and president, Oregon/Southwest Washington SHM Chapter

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