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Portable ultrasound scanner can thrill doctors, but irks activists

business Updated: Feb 15, 2010 22:19 IST
Sanchita Sharma

A cellphone-sized wonder machine from General Electric can scan a patient’s body for internal injuries or cardiac problems within minutes – but it is worrying social workers who fear the device may be used to abort female foetuses.

The Vscan, GE’s new hand-held ultrasound machine, looks like a cellphone, weighs about 400 gm and can fit into a radiologist’s pocket.

Priced between Rs 5.5 lakh and Rs 6 lakh it has the same image quality as that of traditional ultrasound machine, which can cost anything between Rs 4 lakh and 60 lakh. Cheap alternatives from China come as low as Rs 2.5 lakh, albeit without warranties.

GE’s rival Siemens also makes a similar machine.

GE wants the machine to replace stethoscopes as the basic diagnostic device in emergency centres and neighbourhood clinics.

“Its portability and real-time imaging can be used for quick diagnosis and treatment anywhere, from accident sites to a patient’s bedside. This portable machine can reduce the need for tests and referrals after the first physical examination,” said V Raja, president & CEO, GE Healthcare South Asia.

Targeting a huge rural market, in 2009, GE launched a low-cost battery-run ECG (electrocardiogram) machine called the MACi. Priced at Rs 25,000, it brought down the cost of an ECG to Rs 10 from Rs 300 it costs in private hospitals.

Vscan, however, has worried public health activists who fear it will boost illegal sex determination, which leads to sex-selective abortions. “These developments in portable technology is worrisome because wider availability of ultrasounds will increase access and make illegal sex-determination easier,” said public health activist Sabu George.

He said despite sex-determination being banned under Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act, the government has failed to stop it.

A preference for a boy child and better access to diagnostic technology has caused the country’s sex ratio to fall rapidly from 945 in 1991 to 927 in 2001.

GE officials said that the Vscan is primarily targeted at emergency and trauma care, labour rooms and general physicians and believe it will not be abused.

“GE’s internal audit ensures that the ultrasound machines are only sold to a licenced doctors, so the potential for misuse is not be there,” said Raja.