26 February 2021

Sonographer Striving to Diagnose Endometriosis Quicker and Easier

Alison Deslandes at work

Alison Deslandes

Researcher, University of South Australia
Specialist Obstetric and Gynaecological Sonographer, Specialist Imaging Partners
Bachelor of Medical Radiation Science (Nuclear Medicine)
Graduate Diploma of Medical Sonography
Master of Medical Sonography

Endometriosis affects approximately 800,000 women and people with a uterus – or one in nine – across the country, yet the diagnosis and severity of the debilitating disease is often downplayed.

Like with many aspects of women’s health, historically the focus on better outcomes in this area has been undervalued and under researched as women in general and women’s work has been misunderstood and unrecognised as well.

Specialist Obstetric & Gynaecological Sonographer and Researcher Alison Deslandes is part of a cohort of health professionals determined to change this with a dedication to delving deeper and shining a light on endometriosis and the difficulties those with symptoms often face.

Endometriosis – a chronic, gynaecological condition affecting nearly three times as many women as breast cancer – occurs when tissue similar to the endometrium tissue that lines the uterus grows outside forming lesions on the ovaries, bowel, and pelvis, sometimes spreading to other organs. If left untreated it can lead to fertility problems, and even renal failure or bowel obstruction in extreme cases.

Surgery removes the deposits, although some hormone-based medications are prescribed to help stop the disease progressing and to reduce pain. For some women, one surgery will be all that is needed, and their pain will never return. Many women, however, require multiple surgeries and are never entirely free of pain.

“Many people normalise period pain because it is common, but it often means people with abnormally bad pain delay seeking help or their doctors resist investigating thoroughly,” Alison says.

“People also tend not to understand how common endometriosis is and downplay the severity as it’s a benign condition, but the pain it can cause can be so debilitating for some people that it interferes with their quality of life – being able to work, study or simply get on with life.”

Alison DeslandesNot only is this disease extremely painful, it is also hard to diagnose, taking an invasive laparoscopic surgery to officially pinpoint the lesions and disease.

In recent years, transvaginal ultrasound (TVUS), a low cost and readily available imaging technique which could be used to identify more complex conditions, has begun to play a role in the diagnosis endometriosis, but it’s typically only offered by specialised gynaecologists.

This is why Alison – supervised by fellow UniSA sonography and medical imaging experts Associate Professor Nayana Parange, Professor Eva Bezak, Dr Jessie Childs and Brooke Osborne – is investigating the accuracy of TVUS and whether sonographers could perform the procedure in an outpatient facility, making it more accessible to women who are experiencing symptoms.

Diagnosis is key in allowing women to take back control of their lives in the face of endometriosis. More accessible, alternative diagnostic methods for the disease to help alleviate the barriers and time frames usually associated with such answers.

With a pronounced love of physics at school and a desire to help others, Alison was always drawn towards healthcare, and the Bachelor of Medical Radiation Science (Nuclear Medicine) at UniSA combined the two perfectly.

After graduating, she worked as a Nuclear Medicine Technologist for two years in New South Wales, before craving more autonomy and segued into a career as a sonographer with the radiology group she was working with, supporting her workplace training whilst studying a Graduate Diploma Medical Sonography at UniSA.

While in NSW, Alison was fortunate to have the opportunity to work with Professor George Condous, a world leader in gynaecological ultrasound, which really took her skills to a new level and opened up the field of women’s health. Through this experience with Professor Condous, and her continuing clinical work seeing many women for pelvic ultrasounds, she has become well versed in endometriosis particularly.

It was here in sonography Alison found her niche and a deep love of the vocation. In 2014 she completed the Master of Medical Sonography at UniSA to cement a higher-level clinical knowledge. She is now able to balance working clinically at a North Adelaide practice and her research at UniSA, and some voluntary work she is particularly passionate about as a career in sonography allows this flexibility easily.

“I love sonography and I’m very passionate about it,” Alison says.

“Whether it be through seeing a unique pathology in someone’s body, working hard to complete a technically difficult scan, or just getting to chat to a patient who is interesting and has their own story to share with me, there’s rarely a dull day.”

“Each patient I see is unique and each scan I perform will have its own challenges.”

UniSA Video

Endometriosis: exploring new treatments to avoid keyhole surgery

Throughout her career Alison has become deeply involved in the profession through her research and clinical work but has also become a leader in the field, joining the board of the Australasian Society of Ultrasound in Medicine in 2018.

She’s since also joined the board of charity, Through the Unexpected, which focuses on mental health support for those affected by a prenatal diagnosis, enjoying the governance and strategic planning of being on a board in areas related to her work as a sonographer.

Alison continues to make positive contributions in an effort to help shape the landscape of medical ultrasound and help women with endometriosis in this country. Her research will go a long way in ensuring women receive the treatment they need to combat the painful disease in the future.

“Hearing the stories of these people [with endometriosis] really opened my eyes to what an awful disease it can be and how the medical fraternity has largely failed this group historically,” says Alison.

“As I got better at scanning for endo, I realised how much sonographers are also failing people with the disease because we aren’t practised enough in finding it.”

“I wanted to try and improve diagnosis – to make life slightly better for people with endo – by giving them more access to earlier, non-invasive diagnoses.”

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