December 2, 2020

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In this Aug. 2, 2019 photo, students practice with each other using a Butterfly iQ handheld ultrasound device attached to a tablet during a class at Indiana University medical school in Indianapolis. The device shows instant images of the heart and other organs, helping doctors diagnose a range of ailments. (AP Photo/Lindsey Tanner)

Ultrasound Machines Connected to Smartphones Help Scan Coronavirus Patients

An ingenious device originally intended for use in developing countries has made its mark in modern medicine during the pandemic.

A handheld ultrasound scanner that attaches by cable to a smartphone or tablet can help doctors check patients when access to traditional ultrasound units is not available or convenient. The portable Butterfly iQ can do whole-body scans on the spot without the need for cumbersome equipment.

It was designed by Butterfly Network in 2018 and, according to CNN Business, the portable ultrasound has some limitations on the tests it performs. While the images it produces on devices are not as clear as a those displayed on ultrasound traditional units, it fulfills a much needed gap in portability. 

“I don’t need to transport that patient to another area of the hospital for additional imaging and exposure to staff and potentially patients along the way,” said Mike Stone, Butterfly Network’s director of education and an emergency physician based in Portland, Oregon.

According to the Butterfly Network website, the global impact of their handheld device might usher in a new era of healthcare. Currently 4.7 billion people around the world do not have access to medical imaging, and the Butterfly iQ can provide whole-body scanning in many remote regions for less than $2,000 a unit.

Smartling, a technology resource company, says the iQ is made up of two components: the physical scanner and the app that allows physicians to read images on their screens. It includes 19 custom presets that target various areas in the body, such as Cardiac, Lungs, or Abdomen. The pocket-sized versatility of the iQ during the COVID-19 crisis will be particularly useful in emergency medicine, critical care, primary care and telemedicine, according to Smartling.

According to CNN, GE and Phillips as well as smaller companies are also developing portable scanners that will allow doctors to evaluate patients faster and safer. Dr. Stone said that handheld devices cannot replace traditional ultrasound machines, nor can they detect the coronavirus, he added. But they can detect distress in the lungs and other areas of the body that can lead to fast, appropriate treatment.

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