4 times a bedside ultrasound made a difference this week

I bought a pocket ultrasound in 2011, determined to learn how to perform and interpret ultrasound at the bedside and thus transform my internal medicine practice. I bought it new, and it cost over $8,000. That was a staggering amount of money to spend on something I knew very little about. In 2015 after having performed many thousand ultrasound exams with my little GE Vscan with the phased array transducer, I replaced it with the new model which had a dual transducer, with one side for deep structures and one for superficial structures, such as bones and blood vessels. It cost around $10,000. This was an even more staggering amount of money, but more of a sure thing. I knew that it made a difference and that the cost of the machine was a very small portion of the benefit that I would get from using it.

Since the time I bought the new machine, GE has come out with an even fancier machine that is just a wee bit faster and has internet connectivity and a touch screen. Because everyone needs the newest thing, the earlier models like I have are much more reasonable. Without even bargaining, the first machine I bought is available on eBay for many thousands of dollars less than I paid.

I am not trying to sell Vscans. In fact, Phillips has a very lightweight tablet model that gives even better pictures than mine and Sonosite has the iVIZ which also has gorgeous images. These machines are not yet inexpensive, but some day will be. There are very small Chinese machines that are quite inexpensive, but I haven’t played with them and can’t vouch for their quality.

I think of my Vscan as an $8,000 machine. Now it’s more like a $6,000 machine per eBay, but it still isn’t a small expenditure. I like to believe that it’s worth it. Since a day in the hospital in the U.S. costs about $2,500, when I avoid three hospital days by doing ultrasound I consider the machine paid for. Every time using it saves someone’s life, I consider that it paid for itself several times over. In the small picture, I don’t actually get that money, but in the big picture I do, since all health care dollars come out of the same pot eventually.

Here are the ways bedside ultrasound paid for itself this week:

1. A 45-year-old man was admitted with alcoholic hepatitis on top of known cirrhosis. He starts to improve but his abdomen is painfully large, and so he is sent by my colleague for a paracentesis, to have the fluid in his abdomen drained. They are able to remove a liter of fluid, but a couple of days later he is feeling full again and wants the procedure repeated. I look at his abdomen with my bedside machine and am able to reassure him that there is very little fluid to drain and that his discomfort is caused by his huge liver which will gradually return to a more normal size if he stays off alcohol. One procedure and one hospital day saved.

2. A 90-year-old woman whose small bowel obstruction has resolved is ready to go home. I notice that she is a little bit short of breath and I wonder if she has developed congestive heart failure. Her lung exam shows some crackles. I ultrasound her lungs and find that she has just a few “B lines” (indicative of wetness of the lung tissue) in the lower right lung, most consistent with the mild changes often present when a person has been at bed rest. She can go home. She is happy. One hospital day saved.

3. A 50-year-old man is recovering from surgery for a perforated colon. He has developed abdominal distension and pain. The surgeon orders a CT scan with oral contrast. The patient is sitting up in bed with a bottle of contrast solution beside him. He is very unhappy. He can’t imagine drinking the 500 mL of liquid and feels he might vomit it. I ultrasound his abdomen and find that his stomach is huge and fluid filled and his intestines are swollen and completely full of fluid, filling his abdominal cavity. With this information, the surgeon, radiologist and I come to the consensus that having him drink the contrast medium will be useless since it will go nowhere, and what he really needs is a nasogastric tube to drain his stomach and small intestine. The patient is spared the bad things that might have occurred had we attempted to add more fluid to a tense water balloon and appropriate therapy is not delayed. Monetary value=hard to say.

4. A 60-year-old man is in the hospital after a hip fracture. He is on many pills for pain and for blood pressure which have been re-started after his hip surgery. I am called to the bedside because his blood pressure is very low and he won’t respond. Bedside ultrasound shows that his heart, lungs, and abdomen are all normal, with no evidence of a heart attack or a blood clot to the lung. His inferior vena cava, which brings blood to his heart from the lower part of his body is so small that it is invisible. He responds well to a liter of IV fluid and a little bit of oxygen and is sitting up eating dinner a couple of hours later.

Ultrasound allowed me to rule out complications that would have required further testing or intensive care. In retrospect, he had very little money and no way to pay for most of his medication, so had not been taking all the pills on his list. The many sedatives and blood pressure pills hit him hard. Beside avoiding an intensive care unit transfer and complex testing, he was also able to be discharged the following day since he felt fine on fewer pills.

It’s not just the money. (Though, in my experience, it does save money.) Knowing more about what’s going on by way of bedside ultrasound allows for more appropriate and compassionate care. It’s also much more gratifying to a doctor than guessing.

Janice Boughton is a physician who blogs at Why is American health care so expensive?

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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