Siemens AG has introduced a PDA-sized portable ultrasound machine dubbed the P10 that allows emergency room doctors to assess patients quickly and easily. Devices like the P10 are possible largely because analog chip makers are racing to develop electronics that allow portability. Like cell phones before them, these portable ultrasound machines will become increasingly smaller, faster, and cheaper over time. They will also consume far less power than their full-sized counterparts.

Technology advances like these will also trigger new, smaller analyzers for in vitro diagnostics. The explosive growth in this market is demonstrated by a simple fact: semiconductor sales associated with medical equipment totaled $3.02 billion in 2007, up 65% from 5 years ago! Sales of portable systems-those weighing less than 11 lbs-climbed 42% to $565 million last year and are forecasted to reach $1.2 billion in 5 years, according to Klein Biomedical Consultants, Inc., General Electric Co’s GE Healthcare, SonoSite Inc., and Zonare Medical Systems, Inc. together accounted for 85% of the market in 2007.

These portable devices are expected to make ultrasound, which has traditionally been limited to radiologists, cardiologists, obstetricians, and gynecologists, available to new classes of specialists, including anesthesiologists and emergency care physicians. The expanded use of ultrasound could help cut healthcare costs through earlier and more accurate diagnoses.

Technology incorporated in the P10 and other portable ultrasound devices does need improvement. For example, the P10 currently does no show color, so doctors won’t see some problems. Its battery life is limited to four hours of normal use. Refinements to improve image quality and reduce power usage in the pipeline and will soon reach clinical use.

The refinement of computing chips for use in portable ultrasound devices is of note to laboratory staff because this technology has easy applications in creating more and better portable laboratory testing devices. That will expand the types of near patient and point-of-care (POC) testing systems available for diagnostic purposes. It will also enable a new generation of patient self test systems to find ready acceptance by patients. In fact, the development of blood glucose monitoring systems for diabetic patients provides one good example of how manufacturers are regularly adding new features and capabilities to these consumer self-test products.

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