Patients with thyroid nodules — extremely common lumps on the thyroid that are usually benign, but can be malignant — are typically sent for ultrasound imaging to evaluate the size and structure of their thyroid and nodules. A radiologist’s report is then sent to the treating physician, who discusses the report with the patient and recommends next steps.
Lisa Orloff, MD, director of the endocrine head and neck surgery program at Stanford, doesn't follow this traditional procedure: she performs her own ultrasound exams in the office and is training other head and neck surgeons to do the same. I recently spoke with Orloff about the role of ultrasound imaging in her practice.
Why do you primarily use ultrasound imaging to diagnose head and neck disease?
My clinical practice focuses on the surgical management of thyroid and parathyroid disease, especially thyroid cancer. In the head and neck region, ultrasound imaging has long been recognized as the ‘go to’ study if you want to evaluate the structure, size and content of the thyroid gland. What’s been recognized more recently is how great ultrasound is for most of the head and neck structures. So we’re moving into an era of ‘ultrasound first:’ See what you can see with ultrasound, and then decide if you need additional cross-sectional imaging to corroborate or complement the ultrasound findings. For patients with thyroid cancer, ultrasound is extremely useful for evaluating not only the thyroid, but the rest of the neck for aggressive features including possible metastases.
Ultrasound is a low risk, low cost and very high yield imaging study that better characterizes the details within thyroid nodules or lymph nodes; whereas, CT and MRI often rely more on size to say whether or not a thyroid nodule or lymph node is suspicious. It’s really phenomenal what you can see with modern, high-resolution ultrasound equipment.
However, ultrasound has been blamed for the recent increase in incidence of thyroid cancer, which is largely due to increased detection. Even malignant thyroid nodules can sometimes be very indolent cancers that may not require intervention, but can be monitored. A major challenge in thyroid cancer care is distinguishing potentially aggressive tumors from those that are very low risk.
Why is it helpful to have a doctor, instead of a technician, perform ultrasound?
When used at the point of care — performed by the clinician who is taking care of the patient — ultrasound enables that treating clinician to immediately investigate and answer questions with ultrasound information, and then implement treatments. It’s sort of one-stop shopping.
There’s an invaluable connection made with the patient when the treating physician performs the ultrasound exam, while explaining findings to the patient and discussing whether and how to treat them. I think it translates into improved patient care. If I’m the one doing the ultrasound exam, I can plan and execute surgery better with firsthand knowledge of what lies beneath the surface — rather than relying on images that someone else captured. I can perform ultrasound-guided biopsies and treatments in the office. I can also judge when an intervention or even biopsy isn’t necessary.
At present, I’m the surgeon in Stanford's head and neck division who routinely uses office-based ultrasound to evaluate patients, many of whom are referred to me specifically for that reason. But my colleagues in comprehensive ENT also perform ultrasonography [ultrasound imaging], as do our fellows and residents. We’re very motivated to train the next generation of otolaryngologists so it becomes more widely practiced in the office setting. We want to reduce the need for multiple appointments and more costly or invasive studies.
I heard you recently traveled to Zimbabwe. What did you do there?
My department has developed a relationship with the only medical school in the country, the University of Zimbabwe. I spent two weeks this summer, mainly teaching ultrasonography to residents in both otolaryngology and surgery — introducing the concept of point-of-care ultrasound to a low-resource practice environment where this has the potential for even greater impact. Most patients there don’t have ready access to get an expensive CT or MRI scan. I think ultrasound has a particular application in that setting, because it’s inexpensive, portable, fast and so user friendly. It’s also painless and non-threatening — you can do it on kids without having to anesthetize them to stay still.
Going over there to teach was a really rewarding experience. I hope to go back soon. We were very fortunate to have ultrasound equipment loaned for teaching purposes by GE based in South Africa. My next goal is to raise funds for an ultrasound machine to equip the Zimbabwe program with this wonderful tool for their continuing use.
Previously: Ultrasound has its day — evangelists galore, Stanford instructor called out for his innovative — and beautiful — imaging work and Bringing surgical training to female medical students in Zimbabwe
Photo, of Lisa Orloff performing an ultrasound exam, by Stuart Kraybill