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Can a handheld ultrasound replace your doctor?

Dr. Mercola, described by Wikipedia as “an alternative medicine proponent, osteopathic physician, and web entrepreneur, who markets a variety of controversial dietary supplements and medical devices through his website,” is jumping the gun.

Yes, it’s true that a handheld ultrasound connected to a smart phone enabled a man to diagnose his own cancer. However, it was not just any man. It was vascular surgeon John Martin, MD. As an advisor for the company that developed the ultrasound device, he happened to be testing it.

Noticing a sense of fullness in his throat, he put the probe on his neck and found what turned out to be a 3 cm squamous cell carcinoma. He did not know it was a cancer at the time but was suspicious. As reported in the MIT Technology Review, he eventually had a biopsy, lengthy operation, and radiation therapy.

The ultrasound device, developed by a company called Butterfly Network, is much smaller than a conventional ultrasound machine because it generates the sound waves using thousands of vibrating drums the width of a human hair instead of larger vibrating piezoelectric crystals. Because it is so advanced, the multiple probes used in previous generations of ultrasound machines are unnecessary.

Here’s a photograph of the probe containing the entire works connected to an iPhone.

The Butterfly ultrasound is much less costly than most conventional ultrasounds, which can run as high as the mid-five figures. The price will make it attractive to hospitals, doctors, and first responders, but $1999 would be a lot for an individual to pay for something not readily usable by the average patient.

According to a story in Stat News Plus, scientist and physician Eric Topol, MD, who is an advocate of mobile health technology, correctly pointed out, “Even most doctors are not good at reading ultrasounds. How are consumers going to do?”

This problem may be solved with the aid of artificial intelligence, which supposedly can be adapted to interpret ultrasound images some day.

“Empower you to fire your doctor”? I don’t think so. If a patient could somehow discover a suspicious lump using ultrasound, she would still need to see a doctor. Dr. Martin is a surgeon but was not able to biopsy his own throat, perform his own 5½ hour operation to remove his mass, or give himself radiation therapy.

 

Skeptical Scalpel is a retired surgeon and was a surgical department chairman and residency program director for many years. He is board-certified in general surgery and a surgical sub-specialty and has re-certified in both several times. For the last 8 years, he has been blogging at SkepticalScalpel.blogspot.comand tweeting as @SkepticScalpel. His blog has had more than 3,000,000 page views, and he has over 18,000 followers on Twitter.

 

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