Wireless ultrasound systems which communicate with your smartphone or tablet are now entering the market, at very affordable prices. What are the pros and cons of these machines?
Wireless ultrasound probes have been on the market for several years now. I’ve been in the veterinary ultrasound industry for a decade and was first introduced to the technology via the Siemens Acuson Freestyle, which was great in theory – hygienic for the surgical environment, for example – but not cost-effective in practice. For private users such as dog breeders, certainly, its price tag of over £10,000 put it well out of reach.
Chinese manufacturers soon began reproducing the technology, at a much lower cost. At first, it was very ‘gimmicky’ – not yet adopted by any of the reputable manufacturers with quality control processes in place, and hence made with poor quality cheap, unreliable parts.
In the last year, however, the quality has gradually begun to improve, such that wireless ultrasound is now a viable option for entry-level ‘quick-check’ style scanning. It is not yet at the stage where it is suitable for stand-alone professional use or for detailed checking of foetal viability, for example – but it can certainly rule pregnancy in or out (in the hands of a trained individual) well over and above devices such as the Draminski Pregnancy Detector, and could even serve as a cost-effective handheld device in the vet’s pocket provided a full service ultrasound scanner was on hand to investigate any findings further (you can read my Imperial College dissertation on the cost-effectiveness of handheld ultrasound as a screening tool here: Handheld Ultrasound for screening Preoperative Non-Cardiac Patients).
Pros and cons of wireless ultrasound scanners
- Provided you already own a smart device or tablet, wireless ultrasound is comparatively cheap.
- Quick and easy to use for simple tasks like ruling pregnancy in/out in small animals at 30 days+ post-mating.
- Light and portable.
- Images saved directly onto your phone or tablet, for easy uploading to your website or sharing on social media.
- Very vulnerable to interference. Ultrasound probes are prone to interference from nearby electrical equipment anyway, and this problem is exacerbated by a probe which communicates wirelessly. When I tested a number of wireless ultrasound systems at a medical show last November 2017, none of them were able to properly communicate within the show environment surrounded by other electrical devices and people’s mobile phones.
- All of the sub-£2000 wireless transducers are currently single frequency. This means you cannot adjust your frequency in response to patient size or echogenicity. This is a major disadvantage in achieving optimal image quality.
- Limited functionality. Gain, depth and focal point adjustment are realistically the only controls you will be able to adjust, with varying degrees of ease, given that it must all be done on your device’s keypad. Whilst these are the controls beginners usually start with, as you improve your scanning technique, you may find yourself frustrated by your inability to progress and optimise your images. This is particularly the case if you are a member of a professional scanning group like the Vet Image Solutions or Animal Ultrasound Association Facebook groups, where other members will be uploading images and discussing controls which you do not have access to on your limited device.
- Potential biohazard. Whilst the transducer is easy to clean, devices such as iPads and iPhones are not designed for the clinical environment, and may not be as easy to disinfect as standard ultrasound machines built with biosecurity concerns in mind. Plus, how comfortable are you plastering your iPhone in ultrasound gel and dog hair?
- You must own a ‘smart’ device or tablet. If you don’t, wireless ultrasound devices are worthless, unless you’re thinking of spending over £10,000 for something like a Siemens Freestyle.