Since the 1990s, point-of-care ultrasound technology has become more widely used among physicians at the bedsides of patients. Now, the portable technology, often referred to as POCUS, is also common in medical education — with schools like the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine (WVSOM) placing an emphasis on teaching future doctors its benefits.
“It’s important for medical school students to learn because it’s increasingly being adopted into credentialing guidelines for different specialties. Emergency medicine has been at the forefront of that realm, but other specialties are using point-of-care ultrasound more and more at the bedside,” said Michelle Clinton, M.D., a WVSOM faculty member who was hired in August 2023 to oversee the school’s POCUS technology and education.
“It doesn’t just augment your senses like a stethoscope or otoscope; it’s an advanced diagnostic tool,” Clinton said. “It’s exciting for WVSOM, with its mission to train primary care physicians for rural and underserved areas, because ultrasound can be such an important tool to pick up pathology early, to do screening exams and to expedite care, especially in settings where resources are limited.”
Emily Thomas, D.O., the school’s medical director of clinical evaluation and simulation, has advocated for ultrasound education since WVSOM first purchased the devices. Thomas said that Linda Boyd, D.O., WVSOM’s vice president for academic affairs and dean and chief academic officer, has been a proponent of ultrasound education and helped secure additional funding.
“Physicians possessing POCUS skills could help mitigate some of the barriers to health care for patients. Instead of having to travel to have ultrasound performed at a large health care facility in a larger city with potential delay in diagnosis or implementation of treatment, patients could be assessed in their home area by their own treating physician,” Thomas said. “A robust POCUS curriculum is in keeping with WVSOM’s mission to serve the state of West Virginia with an emphasis on primary care in rural areas.”
In fall 2023, ultrasound education was offered as an elective to about 70 WVSOM students. It will again be available in the spring. All first-year students interested in the technology will have access to it in fall 2024, as it will continue to be offered as an elective in WVSOM’s new Finding Health curriculum.
WVSOM students have had access to 25 Butterfly iQ devices — portable ultrasound systems designed for external imaging that connect to cell phones and other electronic devices — but 36 additional devices were recently purchased.
Clinton said the Butterfly iQ devices are more streamlined — one probe can perform imaging on all body areas whereas in the past different probes were needed — and more affordable than “cart-based systems” that are traditionally used by ultrasound technicians. Handheld probes can cost less than $3,000, while full units cost $50,000 or more.
“Full units were often seen as a barrier because of their size and cost,” Clinton said. “The affordability of portable units has increased the interest in ultrasound among primary care physicians and other subspecialties.”
Jacob Wilson, a Class of 2026 student, said he is thankful for the opportunity to learn about ultrasound technology before his clinical years begin.
“The utility and adaptability of ultrasound, with the new technologies we have — you can almost name a field and there’s a subcategory of ultrasound that can be applied to that field,” he said. “Getting that exposure early at WVSOM will set us up for success in the future, regardless of what type of residency we go into.”
Class of 2026 student Sabrina Wolf said that initially there was much to learn with the new technology, but now she feels better prepared and more comfortable with using it at a health care facility.
“There was a pretty steep learning curve, but that’s one of the reasons I thought this was such a beneficial elective to have. I already feel so much better with it after using it,” she said.
Students who have had POCUS training during their medical education have an advantage when entering the health care profession, Thomas said.
“Students who want to be more competitive know that ultrasound is one way for them to stand apart. Most residency programs require some competency in point-of-care ultrasound,” she said. “Doctors who can provide bedside ultrasound with real-time information can diagnose faster, so this training puts our students ahead.”