Innovation, competitive prices to underpin uptake of diagnostic ultrasound devices

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Across Europe, the pricing of ultrasound systems is expected to be central to its uptake. In addition to being competitively priced, products with an emphasis on innovation, user-friendliness, mobility and compactness are also expected to appeal to end-users.

While prices of small, portable units have remained fairly static, larger units have experienced more dramatic price declines of up to 25 per cent since the mid 1990s. Even as competition intensifies, the overall European ultrasound market is projected to grow annually by nearly 1.8 to 2 per cent.

Sales of advanced 3D and 4D imaging units have been lagging largely due to the pricing and cost issues. Uptake rates have been sluggish since they are expensive and relatively costly to use on a regular basis. Moreover, with divergent, country-specific reimbursement schemes prevailing across Europe, competitive pricing is likely to be a pre-requisite to encouraging adoption of high-end systems.

An additional factor to slow adoption of 3D and 4D imaging has been non-uniform guidelines for the safe use of ultrasound systems and varied training requirements across Europe. This is important as safety and ergonomic concerns are emerging as a key factor in the ultrasound modality market.

Indeed, high rates of work-related injuries to sonographers have prompted companies to design increasingly ergonomic and user-friendly ultrasound devices. For instance, the innovative integration of Bluetooth wireless technology with ultrasound devices has been in line with attempts to support a stress- and injury-free work environment.

The lack of a uniform, pan-European, standardised structure for ultrasound training has been compounded by inconsistent regulatory norms across countries. This has negatively impacted the quality of technical training and the level of professional competency. And with rising demand for faster, economical ultrasound exams, the dearth of skilled, trained and qualified sonographers is intensifying pressure on clinicians.

“Generally, specialists agree that enhanced imaging capabilities such as 3D or 4D require a different set of reading and interpreting skills from other modalities, with a possibly steep learning curve,” note Technical Insights Analysts Giridhar Rao and Kasturi Nadkarny from Frost & Sullivan. “Additionally, a comprehensive and standard terminology needs to be developed, which would help physicians describe what they see and communicate the same to patients.”

Despite the many challenges, innovative technologies are giving a fillip to market expansion. For instance, although still at the research state, a freehand 3D ultrasound device is likely to find enormous use in clinical surgery and radiotherapy. Ongoing research into miniaturised, handheld ultrasound devices with the potential of being used for low-cost, first-stage screening for osteoporosis is likely to help make bone checkups a routine matter.

In terms of 2D ultrasound technologies, the development of a breast biopsy ‘phantom’ provides a hands-on training device for perfecting real-time biopsies involving ultrasound modality and accurate breast screening. A pioneering MRI-guided ultrasound therapy offers the prospect of avoiding myomectomy or hysterectomy while a unique porous piezoelectric ceramic is expected to double the sensitivity and resolution of ultrasound diagnostic equipment.

An intra-operative ultrasound imaging system that enables integration of very high quality 3D ultrasound and neuro navigation technology represents advances made in 3D ultrasound technologies. The development of a new diagnostic method that uses ultrasound to diagnose pathogenic diseases applicable to both obstetrics as well as gynaecology constitutes another milestone. A recently developed transvaginal ultrasound is projected to help determine a woman’s reproductive age.

Significant progress has been made in 4D ultrasound technologies, as well. These range from an ultrasound system that has the ability to impart maximum clarity and resolution to ultrasound images, thereby facilitating breast imaging to a new bladder scan that offers patients non-invasive treatment in terms of diagnosis and management of urinary outflow dysfunction. Other advances include a new technology that combines MRI and high intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU) for early diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer to a new technique that provides real-time images with finer details of the foetus enabling a comprehensive, prenatal health check-up of babies.

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