COVID-19 is significantly increasing the use of pillcams

Apr 5, 2021

Medicine is moving into the selfie age, with the increased use of tiny cameras probing the insides of a body. The idea has become especially useful in the COVID-19 era.

People of a certain age are familiar with colonoscopies, a tiny camera at the end of a wire that probes your lower insides and can help a doctor remove polyps seen on a screen at the other end of the device. It's part of the search for colorectal cancers, the second-most deadly cancer.

Now, the increasing idea of looking at your insides by swallowing a tiny camera is allowing physicians to view your entire digestive system.

A pillcam from Medtronic is just one option for capsule endoscopy.
Credit Medtronic

Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center surgical oncologist Dr. Steven Nurkin said these pillcams broadcast images to a receiver worn on your belt.

"It takes multiple images as the capsule goes through the GI Tract. Not only does it look at the colon, but it looks at the esophagus, the stomach, the small intestine, which is the longest part of the GI Tract," said Nurkin. "It's about 20' long. You are able to look through that. Again, the pros to that is that you are able to see throughout the GI Tract."

By taking the pill at home, it keeps people out of the hospital. It also accommodates those social distancing because of COVID-19.

Nurkin said Britain's Health Service is massively turning to more medicine at home, including pillcams, because of COVID-19.

"What we are concerned about are, currently there is a population that is already been reluctnat to get that procedure done, the colonoscopy done. Now, with COVID and potentially the variants and other things, we're worried that some of these early cancers are going to be missed and some of these people are going to be coming in with later stages," Murkin said.

Nurkin said another advantage of these Hollywood-like pillcams is that they may find other problems long before they get serious.

One disadvantage is that a patient would still need a colonoscopy to have any polyp removed. Nurkin said colonoscopies remain the current gold standard.

"Not only would it identify cancers, but also it can pick up pre-cancerous polyps and remove those," he said. "And we do know looking at large studies that having a colonoscopy with removal of those pre-cancerous polyps prevents cancers and saves lives."

Nurkin said around one-third of people who should be tested don't get colonoscopies for a lot of reasons, including the pre-test preparedness. That's why doctor are looking for effective alternatives and the tiny cameras are becoming increasingly popular because they can spot other problems besides cancer.