Is ultrasound the stethoscope of the future? Is it an extension of the physical examination? Will it replace the physical exam?
Point-of-care ultrasound is a diagnostic test. It is a rapid, bedside, noninvasive, accurate, diagnostic test, but still a diagnostic test. It can certainly augment data obtained through physical examination and medical interviews, and adds to information obtained by blood assays and radiology studies.
It is performed using FDA-approved medical devices by clinicians with specialized training. Images used for medical decision-making may be archived and shared with colleagues from multiple specialties. Quality assurance programs improve clinician accuracy and accountability. These are not physical examination characteristics. These are qualities of good diagnostic tests.
There is and will continue to be debate about this issue. Whether we think about point-of-care ultrasound as a diagnostic test or part of the physical examination has ramifications for training, documentation, archiving, and billing.
We recommend checking the guidelines relevant to your specialty and making up your own mind on this issue. In either camp some things remain constant: train well and use ultrasound to enhance the care you provide your patients.