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UC Irvine medical school becomes one of first in country to incorporate portable ultrasound

UC Irvine's Dr. Chris Fox brought portable ultrasounds into UCI's medical school training. He says the small devices save lives and money.
Photo courtesy of UCI Communications/Daniel A. Anderson
UC Irvine's Dr. Chris Fox brought portable ultrasounds into UCI's medical school training. He says the small devices save lives and money.

UC Irvine has become one of the first medical schools in the country to permanently incorporate portable ultrasound into every year of its curriculum. Students just started learning on the machines when the semester began a few weeks ago.

When you visit the doctor, he or she will ask you where it hurts and then feel around that area.

If the doctor wants a closer look, that’s when it’s time for an X-ray or a CT scan. But both take time and cost money. And the scans can expose you to a lot of radiation.

So at UC Irvine’s medical school, they’re teaching med students how to use a portable ultrasound machine. Dr. Chris Fox is in charge of the portable ultrasound program.

"I can see a lot more with that device, with the ultrasound machine, than I could ever feel or listen to with my stethoscope," Fox says.

He says UCI is one of the first medical schools in the nation to put portable ultrasound training into all four years of medical school.

The company that makes the machines donated them. Fox says the med students start training on the machines from the get-go.

"They learn in the first year of medical school how to differentiate all the tissue types using ultrasound," Fox explains. "So, the skin, subcutaneous tissue – you know, I could break it all the way down to the bone, the muscle, the nerve, the tendons, all the organs. Everything from the head and neck through the thorax, the abdomen, the vasculature, the extremities. I mean everything. So they learn all those different tissue types, but not just what they look like, but how to window them or how to get the images to pop on the screen."

In their second year, the med students learn how to recognize medical problems in those scans. Then in their third and fourth year, they’ll be issued their own portable ultrasound machines to use with patients.

Fox says that four years of practice and the ability to use a portable ultrasound machine well will give those new doctors an invaluable skill and diagnosing tool.

"It’s not just looking at a still image on the screen. It’s generating the image yourself, interacting with your patient in that intimate way – that is 'bedside ultrasound,'" Fox says.

Fox, who worked to get the portable ultrasound training into UCI’s medical school curriculum, says the medical field is moving toward portable devices.

He says the advantage of portable ultrasound is that it provides decent images, but doesn’t give the patient a dose of radiation to get them.

And it gives doctors a better – and quicker – idea of what’s wrong.

"Eventually, I think every doctor is going to have something the size of probably an iPad, with a probe either connected to it with a wire or wirelessly," Fox says. "If you just look at the way computers miniaturized, you know. I mean, the students we teach now, they’ve been walking around with the Internet in their pocket since high school, you know. I mean this whole thing is going toward a very handheld, portable device."

Many doctors already carry around laptops as they see patients. Fox says portable ultrasound could be the next step.

But each portable ultrasound machine costs about the same amount as an upscale car. Will hospitals and doctor’s offices invest in portable ultrasound?

The UCI medical school is banking that they’ll decide that better, faster and safer diagnoses are worth it. If that’s right, the new class of UCI doctors will be ready.