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Technology is Changing How Doctors Diagnose, Treat Patients

Three physicians from UC Irvine Health discuss the future of medicine and how medical students are learning ways that technology can be leveraged to improve patient care.

(TNS) -- Technology isn't just making your smartphone faster and your car safer. It's also changing how doctors diagnose and treat patients and how they learn in medical school.

Three physicians from UC Irvine Health shared how technology is shaping their field of practice, during a recent lecture at Newport Beach Central Library.

Power of sound

J. Christian Fox, a professor of emergency medicine and assistant dean of student affairs, is a self-professed "sono-evangelist."

With ultrasound machines getting smaller and smaller, Fox said, he envisions hand-held ultrasounds in the pocket of every doctor's white coat.

Ultrasound imaging uses sound waves to visualize organs and other tissues in the body. Fox said his medical students can use the machines for 30 patient applications that can be done at the bedside.

"Everything from eyeballs to ankles, and all the organs in between, can be seen in much better resolution and a lot more accurately than the physical examination can ever dream of," Fox said.

But reading ultrasound images takes a special skill, so the UCI medical school has built ultrasound training into the curriculum. It's also working on an ultrasound suite to allow medical students and visiting physicians to practice.

"Ultrasound can be a bit of an art to perform," Fox said. "It takes quite a bit of training and time to make these machines sing to you.

Fox said ultrasound care could cut down physicians' use of CT scans -- a series of X-ray images taken together to visualize the inside of the body which can add up to a lot of radiation over time, he said.

"If the answer can come from sound waves and not X-rays, we should not be ashamed to reach for ultrasound first," Fox said.

Minimally invasive brain surgery

Technology is helping neurosurgeons find minimally invasive ways to treat patients with a brain disorder, said Frank Hsu, acting chairman of the department of neurological surgery.

Hsu said advances in imaging technology have made neurosurgery safer and more efficient. Surgeons can take images to get a road map of the brain before surgery, and can use tests such as a functional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to locate hot spots of activity in the brain so they can be avoided, he said.

"It's like a GPS system," Hsu said.

For decades, a surgeon treating an aneurysm in a patient's brain would need to open up the skull, locate the blood vessel and tie off the out-pouching vessel wall. But now, endovascular surgery has taken over, Hsu said.

An aneurysm is created when the walls of an artery weaken, creating a balloon-like pouch or bulge. New techniques, however, allow a surgeon to thread a catheter into the patient's cerebral artery and place a coil or a mesh stent into the pouch, redirecting blood away from the aneurysm. With the blood no longer pounding against the walls of the aneurysm, it can eventually heal, Hsu said.

Hsu said neurosurgeons have also started to adapt endoscopic procedures to deal with tumors at the base of the skull. Instead of opening up the head, surgeons will use the nasal passages and sinuses to get to hard-to-reach places, which improves recovery for patients, he said.

Teaching tech in school

It's not just veteran physicians learning new technology, it's medical students too, said Warren Wiechmann, associate dean of instructional technologies.

Technology has completely transformed industries such as banking, music and travel. But medicine in some ways has been slower, Wiechmann said.

"Why, when you go to the doctor, are you still filling out a clipboard with 15 sheets of paper every single time you go in, but when you go to a Chipotle, you can go online and order a burrito?" he said.

Students at UC Irvine's medical school are learning how technology can be leveraged to improve patient care, Wiechmann said. They are developing smartphone apps to gather medical data -- for example, using the phone's sensors to measure how strong tremors are in patients with Parkinson's disease, to see whether a medication is working.

Students also create content to display online, such as a video to reduce injuries around the holidays by outlining who should avoid getting up on a ladder to hang decorations.

Products such as exercise tool FitBit could also provide valuable data for a physician, Wiechmann said.

"(People are) doing all this hard work to manage health, keep your step count up, and your physician doesn't know what to do with that information," Wiechmann said. "That's kind of a shame."

©2015 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.