Renfrew paramedics testing cutting-edge ultrasound in the field

Renfrew County paramedics used ultrasound devices the size of a cellphone to diagnose victims of Tuesday's major crash east of Pakenham, Ont.

Ottawa Paramedic Service says it's watching Renfrew pilot project to evaluate the technology

Michael Nolan, chief of the Renfrew County Paramedic Service, holds one of the point-of-care ultrasound devices that was tested as part of a one-year pilot program. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

Paramedics in Renfrew County are using portable ultrasound machines in the field to respond to a variety of situations, including a serious collision that sent seven people — including four children — to hospital Tuesday night.

The devices were rolled out after a one-year pilot project wrapped in June to test point-of-care ultrasound technology, which allows paramedics to scan and diagnose patients with possible internal injuries before they get to the hospital

Renfrew Paramedic Chief Michael Nolan, who was on the scene of Tuesday's collision, said it was an "excellent example" of how the devices can be used.

"We were very selective in terms of which patients we scanned and which parts of the body based upon their complaints," he said.

"That aided us in being able to share that information with ORNGE and the critical care flight paramedics and the trauma team."

Paramedics used the ultrasound device at the scene of a serious collision August 1, 2017. Seven people were taken to hospital. (François Côté/Twitter)

Paramedics in Renfrew are believed to be the first in Ontario to use the devices, according to Nolan. 

He said performing ultrasounds in the field allows paramedics to make decisions about what's happening under the patients' skin to see if organs have been damaged or are bleeding internally.

"To be able to identify whether someone is or is not bleeding can help us in the decision as to whether we go to the trauma centre or whether we go to the local hospital," he said.

Ultrasound 'used everyday'

The pilot program in Renfrew County began on the initiative of paramedic Jeff Dodge after a training session at The Ottawa Hospital.

Nolan said over the last year they've tested five devices that can be used before the patient is taken to hospital and have learned how useful ultrasounds can be. They've bought two devices so far. 

"The ultrasound now, even though we only have two devices in the field in Renfrew County, is getting used everyday," he said.

Renfrew Paramedic Chief Michael Nolan shows a video of an ultrasound taken in the field using the device, which is about the size of a late-90s flip phone. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

Nolan said the ultrasound allows greater accuracy than traditional tools like a stethoscope, and can help diagnose a patient who has difficulty communicating because of age, language or loss of consciousness.

"Now we can actually look inside, it's the closest thing that we've had to x-ray vision," he said.

Each device cost $7,500 and paramedics need between three and four days of training to use the device, Nolan said.

"We have paramedics coming from Ireland, from Turkey, from Germany over the next two weeks to have look at our trial to see how we've integrated it," he said.

Ottawa paramedics watching

The Ottawa Paramedic Service is interested in taking a look at the the results of the County of Renfrew's pilot program to decide whether or how ultrasound technology can be incorporated into field work.

"We will look what are the benefits the cost and see how we can adapt it to our mainly urban environment," said spokesman Marc-Antoine Deschamps. 

Ottawa Paramedic spokesperson Marc-Antoine Deschamps. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

Deschamps said Renfrew may experience greater benefits from portable ultrasound because it's a mainly rural service, with the closest trauma centre in Ottawa.

"We're talking way longer distances. So there might be some great benefits in them determining: do we need to get him to hospital? Do we need an air ambulance? Are we going to take him up right away? Where in Ottawa we're extremely close to a trauma centre," he said.

Nolan said the portable ultrasound devices appear to be useful regardless of the geography.  

"Really there isn't a significant difference in terms of whether your using this in an rural setting with long transport times or an urban setting with short transport times. Because this is about aiding in the decision of making a diagnosis in the first two to three minutes that you're assessing a patient," he said.

Paramedics in Renfrew County are in the midst of a new study with The Ottawa Hospital to evaluate whether the devices improve patient care, Nolan said.