Harvard Heart Letter

An ultrasound device barely bigger than a smartphone

Ultrasound machines can take images (echocardiograms) of the heart's chambers, valves, and blood flow that rival CT and MRI scans for detail and clarity. But sometimes a more rapidly acquired echocardiogram serves a particular purpose better than one with all the "bells and whistles."

Ultrasound devices that physicians can carry in a pocket now "compare favorably with the stethoscope as a tool to differentiate what's normal from what's not," says Dr. Judy Mangion, associate director of the noninvasive cardiac laboratory at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital. They let doctors see on a flip screen what they previously could only hear and feel during a physical exam. And at about $8,000 each, a hospital conceivably could give 25 doctors their own pocket-sized ultrasound device for the same cost as a single high-end machine.

The device can deliver useful images when time is of the essence or in situations that don't justify a full-fledged ultrasound. Dr. Mangion uses hers to see how much fluid a heart failure patient is retaining, how well a recently replaced heart valve is working, or how well the heart's chambers are pumping, to name just three applications.

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