Author Beware: Inaccurate Ultrasound Scenes Part 1/2

Redwood’s Medical Edge is pleased to host Shannon Moore Redmon, an ultrasound sonographer, and she’s offering her insights on how to write ultrasound scenes accurately. I know I’ve learned a few things for sure. Today, we’ll cover tips #1 and #2.

Welcome, Shannon!

Americans love to watch medical television shows, like Grey’s Anatomy, ER, or House. We buy up the latest medical thriller and discover the scientific world of healthcare.

What many fail to recognize are the glaring inaccuracies associated with the ultrasound profession and the exams being performed on the television screen. Such scenes contain incorrect anatomy, probes placed in wrong positions, or actors who need more camera face time and scan patients backwards.

Doesn’t Hollywood consult experts when they use ultrasound to determine an abnormality of a baby or find cancer in a patient’s liver?

As a registered diagnostic medical sonographer for over twenty years and an instructor who teaches others to utilize this amazing modality, here are five tips to make those ultrasound scenes more accurate.

Tip #1:  Sonographers perform the majority of scans.

Whether in a hospital setting, an outpatient center, most OB/Gyn offices, vascular offices, and general imaging facilities, registered sonographers are the ones who perform the majority of ultrasounds on patients . . . not doctors.

In my experience, sonographers scan the patient first and sometimes are the only one who take the images. If a patient is high-risk OB, a sonographer will scan her first, then a maternal fetal medicine doctor will scan after to confirm the diagnosis.

When abdominal or vascular ultrasounds are performed, sonographers scan these patients and the reading physician or surgeon may come into the room to discuss with the patient. More than likely, they will read the images from a digital archiving system located in their office down the hall, then attach a report to the patient’s medical record.

Most episodes on television have a doctor performing the exam. Where have all the sonographers gone? Having lunch together down by the river?

For writers: When writing your ultrasound scenes, let the sonographer take the images and discuss the case with the reading physician. If you want to ratchet up the drama, then let them have a heated discussion over what the sonographer believes she sees versus what the physician thinks he knows.

Great radiologists and reading physicians will critique a sonographer’s images and call them out on sloppy pictures. Sonographers will defend their opinions and their patients when a doctor minimizes the seriousness of the findings with a list of differential diagnoses or refuses to discuss the diagnosis with the patient. This happens in real life.

Tip #2:  Sonographers turn off the sound of the heartbeat.

In the famous Doritos commercial, granted the scene is a comedic parody, but if you listen close during the entire exam, the heartbeat is playing in the background and there is no Doppler technology activated. This is also the case in many television scenes, depicting actual exams.

In real life, the heartrate sound does not play during the entire exam. Sonographers know the heart rate plays only when we turn on the Doppler technology, drop the gate into position and hit the update key. We listen for a few seconds, acquire a heartrate strip along the bottom and then turn the sound off.

For writers: If there is background noise, it comes from the cooling fan on the machine.

Next post: Tips #3-#5.

Shannon Moore Redmon writes romance suspense stories to entertain and share the gospel truth of Jesus Christ. Her stories dive into the healthcare environment where Shannon holds over twenty years of experience as a Registered Diagnostic Medical Sonographer. Her extensive work experience includes Radiology, Obstetrics/Gynecology and Vascular Surgery.

As the former Education Manager for GE Healthcare, she developed her medical professional network across the country. Today, Shannon teaches ultrasound at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College and utilizes many resources to provide accurate healthcare research for authors requesting her services.

She is a member of the ACFW and Blue Ridge Mountain Writer’s Group. Shannon is represented by Tamela Hancock Murray of the Steve Laube Agency. She lives and drinks too much coffee in North Carolina with her husband, two boys and her white foo-foo dog, Sophie.

3 thoughts on “Author Beware: Inaccurate Ultrasound Scenes Part 1/2

  1. Hi,
    I came across your blog as I was googling my question. This week I was watching Grey’s Anatomy (Season 14, episode 18) in which an unscrupulous (or maybe it he was just a fraud?) doctor was giving false diagnoses for breast cancer through ultrasound (I think to sell treatment?). Knowing a little about computers, I wondered how that could be possible. Can an ultrasound store the millions of images or 3d imaging from another patient to be “played” on another patient? Surely a patient would recognize their own general shape if it were possible, i thought. Of course, I wrecked the show for my wife by questioning the show she was enjoying. So, in case I’m all wet in my assumptions, is it possible to fake an ultrasound in real time?


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