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Stay at home, work at home, image at home?

TAGS: Radiology
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Medical imaging has significantly progressed in transitioning out of hospitals and closer to patients.

Imagine your child runs into the house crying after falling on their arm while playing outside. You quickly grab the first aid kit and a small portable X-ray system. A few moments later, the system shows a message reading, “No fracture detected. Please continue to monitor the injury.” Instead of rushing to the emergency room, you avoid the stress and potential cost and instead sit the child down with a bag of ice and the peace of mind that the injury is not serious.

This anecdote may seem like fiction; however, at-home medical imaging is not such a distant reality. In recent years, medical imaging has significantly progressed in transitioning out of hospitals and closer to patients. Medical imaging outpatient centres have sprouted up across most developed nations, and point-of-care (POC) ultrasound has changed from a niche market segment to a major application. Between 2017 and 2020, the number of POC ultrasound systems sold grew 72% and is forecast to grow by 49% through 2024. This expansion of diagnostic imaging has many benefits, including improved access and outcomes for patients, as they are more likely to receive medical attention that yields earlier diagnoses. Additionally, POC medicine helps to alleviate strain on hospital resources that are often overburdened, understaffed, and underfunded.

Figure 1: The expansion of the POC segment of the global ultrasound market, 2017–24

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Source: Omdia

The transition from hospital use to POC is a significant step toward the expansion of medical imaging to the home. Further development of POC medical imaging is the next logical step, with these systems gaining popularity in existing POC settings and expanding into new arenas. This expansion has been enabled by the miniaturization of imaging technology. For example, medical imaging is becoming a mobile technology, with ambulances and military units often equipped with compact or handheld ultrasound systems for quick POC triage and diagnoses.

Additionally, portable X-ray technology, primarily used for industrial purposes, is moving into the medical space, and the handheld ultrasound market is exploding. This is underscored by the recent launch of the semiconductor chip-based handheld ultrasound system, Butterfly iQ, from Butterfly Network and a wireless system, Vscan Air, from GE Healthcare. These product launches have coincided with a significant decline in the price of handheld ultrasound systems, which appeared to be a major barrier to the consumerization of medical imaging. While most medical imaging equipment remains far too expensive for the public, low-cost solutions demonstrate that price may not be as significant a barrier as previously thought.

Figure 2: The global handheld ultrasound equipment market, 2018–25

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Source: Omdia

Beyond assessing playground injuries and other first-aid applications, at-home medical imaging could be useful for regularly monitoring various bodily functions. It is feasible that a doctor could instruct a patient suffering from cardiovascular disease to perform regular echocardiograms to detect blood flow issues or a pregnant woman to perform regular sonograms. Such applications would allow individuals to monitor their health from home and increase the likelihood of early diagnosis if health issues were to arise. Meanwhile, hospitals would benefit from lighter workloads.

The idea of people performing scans at home likely raises some eyebrows. Safety, training, and regulation are legitimate concerns and potential barriers to the adoption of at-home medical imaging. It is important to note that Omdia is not suggesting people could use at-home medical imaging for diagnostic purposes. Instead, at-home medical imaging could be used to screen for symptoms, like how a thermometer is used to determine if an individual has a fever, not the flu. In the case that symptoms occur, the individual would require in-person medical attention, likely with high-end medical imaging equipment that can be used to make a formal diagnosis.

Recent technological developments, such as dose reduction, telehealth, and artificial intelligence (AI), have improved the prospect of overcoming adoption barriers. Radiation is an obvious concern related to medical imaging; however, healthcare manufacturers continue to develop technology to reduce the amount of radiation emitted during a scan. Additionally, since at-home systems would be used for screening and not a diagnosis, low power systems that emit lower radiation would be practical. Ultrasound systems do not emit any radiation, making them better suited for at-home use.

During the COVID-19 health crisis, the use of telehealth technology skyrocketed as patients were encouraged to avoid medical facilities. As telehealth technology continues to advance and adoption becomes more commonplace, it can be used to facilitate at-home scans, especially in higher-risk cases. The individual could virtually connect with a technician who could walk them through the scan, and then the image could be sent to a radiologist for review. For more routine procedures, AI could support the process. AI algorithms already exist that can walk an end-user through an ultrasound scan, ensuring the image is properly acquired, and other algorithms have been developed to automatically identify anatomical abnormalities. The combination of these two types of AI would enable easy and efficient screenings at home. Like telehealth, COVID-19 accelerated the development of medical imaging AI as the importance of efficient and effective screening and the diagnosis was elevated, and funding for further development increased.

Medical imaging will not transcend to at-home use in the short term, since further developments in imaging technology, telehealth, AI, and regulation are necessary to further improve usability, reliability, and affordability. Nonetheless, the idea of at-home medical imaging is not so fictitious after all, especially since the momentum it has gained in recent years has been further spurred by the pandemic.

For more insights from Omdia, click here.

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