The times when imaging devices were a heavy equipment available only to hospitals, medical centers and physician’s offices are over. Technology advancements are now making it possible for everyone to have access to affordable healthcare that is not hundreds of kilometers away. Startup pioneers and even some of the established OEMs like GE Healthcare have successfully launched some variation of a pocket-sized personal imaging device. How far down the road are those new devices and will they pose a real-threat to traditional equipment any time soon? Are they good enough to become as ubiquitous as thermometers and stethoscopes?
Compared to conventional diagnostic imaging equipment, new devices are more quickly and easily accessed by anyone who needs them, they are cheaper and most importantly, they are mobile.
- Time. Portable pocket-size devices can save valuable time for healthcare practitioners who are constantly running around the medical wards. They also allow for collaboration via quick and secure information access and sharing, and can be used at the Point-of-Care (POC) by ambulance and emergency medicine teams
- Distance. The importance of location of clinical staff and distance from the nearest facility with conventional imaging equipment is now a thing of the past. Portability and ease of navigation practically transform the technology into a true personal mobile device
- Cost. Short on funding for a mainstream imaging device? Hand-held devices usually cost just a fraction of the traditional equipment prices and are accessible to an immensely wider audience
- Ease of Use. With conventional imaging devices, for example ultrasound, special transducers are often required to scan different parts of the body with different densities. The new mobile technology doesn’t need any extra accessories to scan different parts of the patient’s body
- Efficiency. The new mobile technology has the potential to significantly boost efficiency due to its ability to integrate with hospital documentation and reporting systems, its portability and hence ability to save time and potential to increase usage rates
Who are personal imaging devices suitable for?
The technology has a much wider target audience compared to conventional imaging devices, mostly due to increased affordability and portability. Such audiences include but are not limited to:
- Smaller and/or remote medical practices, e.g. primary care
- Emergency medicine teams including ambulance nurses and doctors in ER
- International missions or global health programs aimed to help remote communities which often lack access to medical imaging whatsoever
- Nurses and home care workers, for example, during monitoring visits
- University departments and medical students
- General practitioners (and more specialties to join in the future)
- Mothers and general population
Emerging Market Players and Marketing Strategies
Naturally, the new technology is meant to aid mostly medical staff. Some vendors like Canada-based Clarius clearly state that they aim to “deliver an ultra-portable system for medical professionals”. Another vendor, Healcerion, also targets medical personnel by seeking to “provide healthcare professionals with innovative mobile technology that enhances the quality of medical care available around the world.” When bringing forward the affordability of its mobile devices, MobiSante also points out that they have “put imaging within the economic reach of healthcare professionals” in particular.
However, some vendors are more ambitious than that and they are aiming to transform the end-consumer market.
One such pioneer in the field is Butterfly with their Butterfly iQ pocket-size ultrasound. They claim they provide “ultrasound for everyone” (which reminds of Clarius’ “Ultrasound Anywhere” but not quite). Currently, the device has FDA clearance for medical-professional use only. The very fact that it appears at consumer electronics shows such as the CES 2019, already speaks a lot about the company’s vision and ambitions.
Netherlands-based BabyWatcher is another pioneer in the field who claims that they have developed “the first baby ultrasound device […] for home use.” Their pocket-size ultrasound allows future moms to track every single step of their babies’ development instead of having to wait for an appointment and travel to their gynecologist, often on a monthly+ basis. The company claims that already over 5000 future moms have created more than 350 000 ultrasound images across 14 countries (as of July 2019). However, the company also emphasizes the fact that their device is clearly intended to share happiness and fun, and that it does not replace the need for a medical specialist to formally track pregnancy.
What’s Next for Personal Imaging?
Limitless opportunities for hand-held ultrasound equipment exist beyond POC, with OB/GYN clearly standing out as the area with strongest B2C presence. Therefore, end-users of the pocket-size technology will increasingly include not only medical staff but also the general population. However, their right application will likely continue to require formal medical knowledge and guidance.
Can personal imaging spillover to other modalities?
While personal imaging technology innovations have mostly concerned ultrasound, other modalities can follow too. In dental X-ray, some companies have already introduced mobile devices such as the Intraoral hand-held X-ray system KaVo NOMAD and MobileX.
Also, there has been attempts to turn magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) into a more accessible and portable technology. InfraScan is a company that develops hand-held diagnostic devices, particularly for head injury and stroke. Its pocket scanners are based on near infrared (NIR) technologies. While Computerized Tomography (CT) is currently the diagnostic standard for head traumas, many patients cannot receive a CT scan due to remote accident location or lack of a CT scanner. InfraScan’s solutions can help identify traumas and triage patients for CT scanning at the closest facility. So, it seems the personal imaging trend will likely spill over to other modalities as well, with some being easier than others to “put in a pocket”.
How to make it accessible to everyone?
Imaging devices alone cannot provide huge value if there is no medical professional to assist with diagnostics and treatment recommendations. The most convenient way to integrate reliable medical guidance is through telemedicine technology. Butterfly has already started testing software to incorporate telemedicine into their device. They aim to include real-time analysis to help guide patients capture images correctly with the help of their doctor. That is, even those who are not trained to take ultrasound scans can soon do so.
And what about price?
Price-wise, the new technology will likely continue to differentiate itself from mainstream technology staying within the rage of a few thousand dollars. After all, accessibility of any device largely depends on its price tag.
The Way Forward
If the massive personal computer from the 1980s can now fit into a purse, why can’t imaging technology be next? The clear abundance of pocket-sized devices already available is a market force to be reckoned with, for sure. The only strategic decision established manufacturers need to take is whether they will choose to follow their more agile, startup counterparts and risk losing or will use their available resources to advance the niche more quickly.