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Ultrasound may mean end to classic stethoscope

Handheld ultrasound is the tool of choice for some doctors who think it's time to replace the stethoscope, which has seen little change since a French physician invented it in the early 1800s. "The stethoscope is based on sound, and the sound qualities //don't always allow you to distinguish between a heart that is beating well, and one that isn't," say some doctors.

"Sometimes the heart muscle is very weakened, but unless that weakening leads to extra sounds, you may not be able to pick it up."

Handheld ultrasound devices allow doctors to actually see the heart working and see if there is a problem.

Ultrasonic waves and their echoes produce images of organs and systems inside the body. The ultrasound procedure is commonly used during pregnancy to check on the health of the baby or in tests to measure blood flow through the heart.

Ultrasound has generally been reserved for specialists, but as technology has improved, smaller handheld devices that produce good quality images are being developed. But the advance has some doctors concerned.

They say they are worried that if untrained doctors use a tool like ultrasound, they will both misdiagnose and think they see problems where there aren't any. This could mean patients end up having unnecessary procedures.

Some doctors are studying how much training is necessary for primary care doctors to use this equipment.

If it turns out that the average doctor with several months of training can learn to use this well, I think it will proliferate.

And that could change a patient's general exam.

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