GE HealthCare has a vision for how it wants to shape the future of ultrasounds. The company wants ultrasound technology to be “used by nearly every clinician in nearly every situation in nearly every country around the world,” Karley Yoder, chief digital officer of GE HealthCare’s ultrasound division, said in an interview.
Last week, GE HealthCare announced a deal that Yoder thinks will bring the company closer to achieving that vision. The firm unveiled its plan to acquire Caption Health, a company that sells AI software designed to guide cardiac imaging.
San Mateo, California-based Caption was founded in 2013. The Food and Drug Administration cleared the company’s software, called Caption Guidance, in 2020. The agency said the clearance marked the first software ever authorized to guide users through cardiac ultrasound image acquisition.
Caption’s guidance technology — which the FDA has cleared only for use in cardiac ultrasounds —aims to make ultrasound exams easier and faster, as well as allow a broader set of healthcare professionals to conduct basic echocardiography exams. It’s helpful to think of Caption’s technology like Apple Maps for ultrasound novices, said CEO Steve Cashman.
The software enables non-experts to capture images and videos of diagnostic quality by emulating the guidance of an experienced sonographer. The technology communicates instructions via prompts on a screen-based interface — these prompts help users throughout the ultrasound process, such as guiding them on where they need to move the ultrasound probe or telling them how they can adjust controls on the device. This allows more medical professionals to quickly conduct cardiac ultrasounds, which could lead to the earlier detection of heart disease.
“This technology allows novice users, as well as expert users, to be able to get to the right image in less time with higher confidence. And that’s really a paradigm shift in ultrasound, especially in the space of point-of-care ultrasound. It’s extremely important for folks who don’t use ultrasound nonstop everyday to have confidence that they can use this device,” Yoder said.
There are multiple applications of AI, including AI-powered medical devices, cleared by the FDA to guide their users. For example, Eko earned FDA clearance for AI that helps clinicians better detect heart murmurs and atrial fibrillation, and Cognita Labs won clearance for a smart cap that patients can put over their asthma inhalers to guide proper use. Caption’s technology is unique because it’s the first to assist in the acquisition of cardiac ultrasound images — good quality images are key to better diagnostic and even clinical outcomes.
The healthcare system deals with heart failure in a “very reactive way” because patients need an ultrasound image in order to be diagnosed, Cashman pointed out. By democratizing the use of ultrasound imaging so it is not limited to people with technical expertise alone, more patients with heart failure can get diagnosed promptly — and therefore get started with their care plans — sooner.
“Today we do breast cancer screening and colon cancer screening for earlier detection, but the leading cause of death in the world — heart disease and heart failure — is a reactive business.” Cashman declared. “By lowering the barrier to acquire the data that’s needed and a picture of the heart, we actually can do this more routinely in early care for patients that are at risk.”
Lowering this barrier is especially important considering that there are only about 70,000 sonographers working in the U.S. — patients usually have to wait weeks to schedule an echocardiography exam with a sonographer, Cashman pointed out. Knowing how deadly heart disease can be, it’s imperative that the process of obtaining this image gets sped up, he said.
The deal’s financial terms are not being disclosed, but GE HealthCare said it intends to fund the transaction with cash on hand. GE HealthCare looked at other companies in the point-of-care ultrasound AI space, but Yoder did not name any.
She said what really stood out about Caption is that it was the first in the field to build this AI guidance technology for echocardiograms and obtain FDA clearance for it. GE HealthCare also spoke with Caption’s customers, and Yoder said there was “real excitement about what the technology meant for their workflows and for their users.”
In the future, Caption hopes to expand beyond the echocardiogram use into other kinds of ultrasound images, Cashman said.
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