The incredible imaging capacity of computed tomography (CT) has pushed the medical industry to staggering heights. Unfortunately, CT scans have yet to help out the majority of medics in the battlefields, ambulance crews rushing to emergency situations, and even emergency room doctors. This is because conventional CT scanners are practically behemoths, weighing roughly 4,000 kilograms as well as requiring high-voltage capacities to power massive cooling systems and climate-controlled radiology rooms.
Above: An image produced from a 16 slide CT scan system.
The lack of convenient and quick access to CT scans, especially when dealing with stroke or injuries involving brain trauma, has become a critical issue in the medical industry. Despite the continuous advancements in this realm of imaging technique, the immobility of CT scans has been a pain point that needs to be addressed as soon as possible. This is where the portable CT scanner comes in.
Around the 1990s, two types of CT scanners emerged. One is the “fixed” CT scanner, which refers to the huge machines still found in the majority of hospitals across the globe. The second is the mobile CT scanner, or the “portable” CT machine, which is lightweight and can be easily transported.
While there is no specific time and date that could pinpoint the first time a portable CT scanner was used, in 1949 came a surge in demand for “mobile health care.” Around the 1970s, the world’s first mobile CT scanner was launched by Medical Coaches Inc. via their founder Ian Smith’s deal with Peru.
This mobile CT scanner focused primarily on head scans and attempted to provide cross-sectional images of the heart as well. Apart from this, the mobile healthcare unit at the time also provided ultrasounds for pregnant women to evaluate the status of their hearts, gallbladders, breasts, and livers.
Throughout the years, the demand for a mobile CT scanner has increased exponentially due to the influx of incidents where medics have failed to swiftly provide care to stroke patients. These incidents paved the way to the study of utilizing and funding mobile stroke units (MSUs) in 2003. In 2008, the first-ever clinical application of an MSU was conducted at Saarland University in Germany.
Above: A modern MSU.
The initiative was rooted in the idea of “bringing the hospital to the patient,” which eventually decreased the waiting period from the initial distress call to therapy. More importantly, the presence of a portable CT scanner in these MSUs ensured that the professionals could treat patients quickly and accurately during emergencies.
Gradually, the need for MSUs featuring computed tomography equipment inspired 20 more sites across the globe. In January 2014, Houston’s Frazer Ltd designed and released the first MSU in the United States. Basing its setup on the recommendations of neurologists, the company incorporated a portable CT scanner in its hospital on wheels to drastically cut down on treatment time. By 2016, New York’s Presbyterian Hospital became the first to field an MSU on the East Coast and reached a total of three functioning MSUs by 2018.
Another hospital that’s taking advantage of MSUs and portable CT scanners is the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. Aside from the mobile CT scanner, the 14-ton ambulance is also equipped with tools that can infuse early fluids to their stroke patients as well as dye blood vessels to figure out the kind of stroke. Given that Tennessee has been identified as a “stroke belt,” this technology has been a life-changer for a lot of people.
The Memphis MSU staff takes only 13 to 14 minutes to provide treatment to their patients, which covers their response to the scene up to the application of medications to the veins – a far cry from the 40 to 50 minutes these tasks take in emergency rooms.
Neurologists have been hoping for more portable CT scanners, particularly in intensive care units. The availability of a mobile CT scanner on hand would exponentially increase their efficiency, eliminating the need to transfer patients and all medical personnel to the location of the humongous fixed CT scanner.
Computed tomography has evolved in an impressive way over the past 40 years. While it might be nearly impossible for the world to reach the advanced level of technology presented in Star Trek, where doctors can simply wave their wands to instantly diagnose their patients, this rapidly developing niche in radiology seems to be getting there.