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Researchers Aim to Put Ultrasound in Docs’ Pockets

New device has multiple point-of-care applications

Although definitive statistics are hard to come by, the consensus is that the percentage of expectant mothers who choose to have an epidural during labor is on the rise — and in some hospitals has reached 90%.

Considering that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that close to 4 million births occurred in the U.S. in 2012, even a small failure rate can affect tens of thousands of women. This is the issue that Will Mauldin and Kevin Owen, former doctoral students in biomedical engineering at the University of Virginia, are attempting to solve.

One of the primary reasons for epidural failure is incorrect placement of the needle administering the local sedative. Mauldin and Owen are developing a pocket-sized ultrasound device that an anesthesiologist could use to guide an epidural stick.

Because physicians are reluctant to expose pregnant women and their babies to X-rays, anesthesiologists must often rely on their sense of touch to select the proper place between the vertebrae to insert the epidural needle.

Mauldin and Owen developed new techniques to optimize ultrasound imaging of bone — not usually a strength of ultrasound. “You just place our device on the patient’s back, and it highlights the bone automatically,” Owen said. “You don’t have to be a trained sonographer to use it correctly.” The device can be used to scout a location or as a real-time guide to needle insertion.

The device is handheld and rechargeable with its own integrated screen, which means physicians can slip it into their lab coats. It can also be used in general purpose mode to image the heart, abdominal organs, and blood vessels, which opens the way to a host of point-of-care applications, such as rapid trauma assessment. Mauldin and Owen’s start-up company has introduced a preproduction version of the device, building on feedback from two earlier prototype designs.

“If all goes well, the next step for the company is to find a partner to handle manufacturing and distribution,” Mauldin said. “We believe that in the next 12 to 18 months, we’ll have this on the market.”

Source: University of Virginia; June 11, 2014.

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