COLUMBIA, SC — The use of ultrasound as a medical teaching tool has taken off in recent years, and the University of South Carolina School of Medicine has been a leader in the technological advance.
Hundreds of instructors from medical schools across the country have stopped in Columbia in recent years to steal ideas, an indication of USC’s trailblazing role, according to Dr. Richard Hoppmann, dean of the USC school. And this weekend, nearly 500 people from across the globe – representing 82 universities and 21 countries – are in town for the Second World Congress on Ultrasound in Medical Education.
“The interest among medical schools has grown tremendously,” Hoppmann said. “It’s a very positive light to shine on the state. We’re training the next generation how to use the best technology.”
Ultrasound technology has been around for decades. Most people first experienced the technology, which bounces sound waves off structures to create an image, as a method for checking the health of fetuses during pregnancy. But it is equally effective in spotting gallstones, detached retinas or defective heart valves.
Revolutionary advances in technology over the past two decades have made ultrasound devices smaller, cheaper and easier to use. Hand-held ultrasound devices are particularly common in emergency medicine. In 2006, Hoppmann, then associate dean at USC, started a push to incorporate ultrasound training throughout medical students’ four years.
A 2010 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on ultrasound instruction put USC in a small group of education innovators along with Stanford University and Wayne State in Detroit.
Ultrasound is non-invasive and, unlike X-rays and CT scans, safe to use over and over on the same person. That makes it ideal for the practice of medicine, Dr. Steven Goldstein of New York University School of Medicine said in a presentation Friday. It also makes it the perfect tool for teaching physicians.
But exploring the body using ultrasound is a departure from the way medical students have been taught for a century. For instance, Goldstein talked about the need to step back and let students learn ultrasound skills on their own from the start rather than teaching at them.
Hoppmann is happy to let other schools learn from USC’s missteps along the way. At first, the ultrasound instruction began about five weeks into students’ first year on campus. At that point, however, the students already were hip deep in difficult classes, and they had difficulty focusing on learning ultrasound techniques, Hoppmann said.
Now, students first get their hands on ultrasound devices during orientation week. They’re so primed to learn at that point they pick up the instruction quickly. And because they do their training on each other, nothing serves as a better ice-breaker with other new students than looking at their internal organs.
Medical students often study the most difficult cases to create a foundation for their medical knowledge. But USC instructors found that in developing ultrasound skills, “it’s best to start with the easiest cases so they can build up their confidence,” Hoppmann said.
Several ultrasound device manufacturers set up booths in the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center this week to show off the latest ultrasound technology. Those companies are pushing each other to build smaller, less expensive devices with specialized clinical uses, Hoppmann said.
Meanwhile, software companies also are coming up with new ways to use the technology in medical education. One of the speakers on Friday extolled software advances that allow ultrasound teaching devices to grade the students’ skills.
Medical students and researchers also are coming up with new uses for ultrasound. One project by USC researchers is studying how a hand-held ultrasound can be used during cardio-pulmonary resuscitation efforts to determine if chest compressions are effectively producing blood flow.
Columbia also hosted the First World Congress on Ultrasound in Medical Education in 2011. But in another indication of the growth of the field, the third meeting now is scheduled for Portland, Ore. Hoppmann expects the fourth will be overseas.