Ultrasound imaging research + training at BC Women's and you.

December 2, 2015
When you see the first images of your baby on the ultrasound screen, research is probably the last thing on your mind. However, ongoing research plays an important role in advancing the use of ultrasound as a safe diagnostic tool that can reveal potential concerns during pregnancy or reassure women that all is progressing well.

BC Women's role in ultrasound imaging research is about to grow significantly, as the hospital will soon become home to a new, technologically advanced ultrasound centre, made possible by an $1,640,000 research grant from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the BC Knowledge Development Fund. 

PRIME Centre

Led by BC Women's diagnostic radiologist Dr. Denise Pugash (pictured left), the Perinatal Research IMaging Evaluation (PRIME) Centre will open next year. The addition will expand and transform BC Women's role as a hub for ultrasound imaging research and teaching. The focus will be on the training of new ultrasound imaging specialists, as well as conducting research studies in the use of ultrasound technology as a tool to advance maternal and infant health.

"It's a completely new research facility dedicated to ultrasound and ultrasound simulation," Pugash explains. "It's an opportunity to do high-level research in imaging pregnant women and their fetuses, that is unique in Canada."

When PRIME is up and running, it will house four new scanning rooms and a high-tech obstetrical ultrasound simulator to enable trainee ultrasound technologists, as well as obstetrical and radiology specialists, to learn ultrasound scanning and fetal diagnosis techniques.  The computerized "pregnant" mannequin can be programmed to mimic scenarios that trainees will face with real patients, including different positions of the normal baby, as well as potential concerns with the development of the fetus.

In addition to providing practical, hands on training for medical personnel, the centre will enable BC Women's to initiate research studies focused on how they can best learn and maintain their technical skills.

In a busy hospital like BC Women's the addition of PRIME will make it possible to significantly increase the number of ultrasound-related research studies. Currently, the daily demand for ultrasound machines for patient care makes it difficult to schedule research time.

New studies in the works include the development of new techniques for ultrasound of the fetal brain, and research on imaging the placenta to find potential pregnancy complications.

PRIME will also forge connections between clinical researchers like Pugash with scientists specializing in the physics, electrical engineering and computer science involved with the development of new ultrasound technology.  As scientists from these disciplines normally work from university labs, and clinical researchers spend their time in a hospital setting, this is a novel opportunity. Pugash explains that this enabling this direct link has tremendous potential to make the technology more useful and efficient for scanning patients.

Ultrasound at BC Women's

Each year, as many as 15,000 ultrasound exams are performed at BC Women's. Half of these are for women with high-risk pregnancies. Most women have a routine scan at around 20 to 22 weeks, and some also receive scans later in pregnancy to check the growth of the fetus, or for other concerns.  On the routine scan, specialists like Pugash examines the images to provide information about your pregnancy and fetus. For example, ultrasound can show if the baby's size is right for his age; how the internal organs are growing; and where the placenta is located. Ultrasound is also used for guidance during other procedures, including amniocentesis.

In most cases, women have a routine ultrasound and leave reassured that the pregnancy is progressing well, but for some, the findings indicate that specialized ultrasound or other diagnostic tests imaging may be needed.  Pugash reassures patients that even if you need multiple scans, ultrasound is safe for you and your baby. "Ultrasound is invaluable for diagnosis. It has been around for 40 years and there have never been any serious concerns."

As every pregnancy is different, your maternity care provider will provide information and advice about the diagnostic tests you may need. For example, if you or someone else in your immediate family was born with a heart problem, you may be advised to have a specialized ultrasound called fetal echocardiography, which enables specialists to take a closer look at the structure of the baby’s heart. 

By deploying specialized ultrasound techniques, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in conjunction with ultrasound, specialists can look for potential concerns that will indicate that your baby may need additional care during the delivery or immediately after. For example, if a regular ultrasound shows that the fetus has a cleft lip or palate, 3D ultrasound can provide a detailed picture of the face to help parents understand what to expect when the baby is born.

Even pregnant women who never visit BC Women's benefit from the specialized diagnostic imaging expertise here. When a second opinion is needed for ultrasound scans, BC Women's specialists can review the images electronically to assist maternity care providers in other centres across the province. The BC Women's team is then able to provide reassurance that care can continue as planned in the woman's own community, or diagnose situations where she may need further scanning or ongoing care at BC Women's.


The Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada provides an overview of the common questions women have about ultrasound during pregnancy.

This article was written by Anne McLaughlin with information provided by Dr. Denise Pugash at BC Women's Hospital.


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