Use of point-of-care ultrasound (POCUS) for heart failure



A 65-year-old woman presents to the emergency department with a chief complaint of shortness of breath for 3 days. Medical history is notable for moderate chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, systolic heart failure with last known ejection fraction (EF) of 35% and type 2 diabetes complicated by hyperglycemia when on steroids. You are talking the case over with colleagues and they suggest point-of-care ultrasound (POCUS) would be useful in her case.

Brief overview of the issue

Dr. Faye Farber

Dr. Faye Farber

Once mainly used by ED and critical care physicians, POCUS is now a tool that many hospitalists are using at the bedside. POCUS differs from traditional comprehensive ultrasounds in the following ways: POCUS is designed to answer a specific clinical question (as opposed to evaluating all organs in a specific region), POCUS exams are performed by the clinician who is formulating the clinical question (as opposed to by a consultative service such as cardiology and radiology), and POCUS can evaluate multiple organ systems (such as by evaluating a patient’s heart, lungs, and inferior vena cava to determine the etiology of hypoxia).

Hospitalist use of POCUS may include guiding procedures, aiding in diagnosis, and assessing effectiveness of treatment. Many high-quality studies have been published that support the use of POCUS and have proven that POCUS can decrease medical errors, help reach diagnoses in a more expedited fashion, and complement or replace more advanced imaging.

Dr. Yasmin Marcantonio of the Division of Hospital Medicine, Duke University Health System, Durham, NC

Dr. Yasmin Marcantonio

A challenge of POCUS is that it is user dependent and there are no established standards for hospitalists in POCUS training. As the Society of Hospital Medicine position statement on POCUS points out, there is a significant difference between skill levels required to obtain a certificate of completion for POCUS training and a certificate of competency in POCUS. Therefore, it is recommended hospitalists work with local credentialing committees to delineate the requirements for POCUS use.

Overview of the data

POCUS for initial assessment and diagnosis of heart failure (HF)

Use of POCUS in cases of suspected HF includes examination of the heart, lungs, and inferior vena cava (IVC). Cardiac ultrasound provides an estimated ejection fraction. Lung ultrasound (LUS) functions to examine for B lines and pleural effusions. The presence of more than three B lines per thoracic zone bilaterally suggests cardiogenic pulmonary edema. Scanning the IVC provides a noninvasive way to assess volume status and is especially helpful when body habitus prevents accurate assessment of jugular venous pressure.

Dr. Neil Stafford of the Division of Hospital Medicine, Duke University Health System, Durham, NC

Dr. Neil Stafford

Several studies have addressed the utility of bedside ultrasound in the initial assessment or diagnosis of acute decompensated heart failure (ADHF) in patients presenting with dyspnea in emergency or inpatient settings. Positive B lines are a useful finding, with high sensitivities, high specificities, and positive likelihood ratios. One large multicenter prospective study found LUS to have a sensitivity of 90.5%, specificity of 93.5%, and positive and negative LRs of 14.0 and 0.10, respectively.1 Another large multicenter prospective cohort study showed that LUS was more sensitive and more specific than chest x-ray (CXR) and brain natriuretic peptide in detecting ADHF.2 Additional POCUS findings that have shown relatively high sensitivities and specificities in the initial diagnosis of ADHF include pleural effusion, reduced left ventricular ejection fraction (LVEF), increased left ventricular end-diastolic dimension, and jugular venous distention.

Data also exists on assessments of ADHF using combinations of POCUS findings; for example, lung and cardiac ultrasound (LuCUS) protocols include an evaluation for B lines, assessment of IVC size and collapsibility, and determination of LVEF, although this has mainly been examined in ED patients. For patients who presented to the ED with undifferentiated dyspnea, one such study showed a specificity of 100% when a LuCUS protocol was used to diagnose ADHF while another study showed that the use of a LuCUS protocol changed management in 47% of patients.3,4 Of note, although each LuCUS protocol integrated the use of lung findings, IVC collapsibility, and LVEF, the exact protocols varied by institution. Finally, it has been established in multiple studies that LUS used in addition to standard workup including history and physical, labs, and electrocardiogram has been shown to increase diagnostic accuracy.2,5


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