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BBC investigation reveals 'incredibly poor practice' at private UK baby scan studios

A recent investigation by BBC News has uncovered failings in the diagnosis of serious medical issues during private maternal scans.

There are now over 200 private UK studios that sell ultrasound scans, carrying out thousands of scans each year. Private baby scanning studios usually offer a variety of services: there are some that diagnose medical issues and others that offer "souvenir" images or videos of the ultrasound, most studios also offer packages including a "reassurance scan" (which typically detects a heartbeat).

More women now than ever are attending such studios, often purchasing confetti cannons and balloons to unveil the gender of their baby after the scan thanks to the increasing popularity of gender reveal parties. 

However, an investigation by the BBC found that some women were not being told about abnormalities and serious conditions identified during the scans.

"Failed"

Ultrasound of pregnant woman.pngAccording to BBC news, many women they spoke to described positive experiences at private baby scan studios, but there were some women who say they had been failed.

A woman from Manchester, Charlotte, went for a scan in Salford with Window to the Womb – a company who claim to be the "UK's Leading Private Baby Scan Clinic" – to record her baby's sex for a party and check its wellbeing.

The sonographer carrying out the scan identified a serious abnormality called anencephaly, where part or all of the baby’s head is missing – meaning they would not survive. However, the sonographer failed to refer Charlotte immediately to hospital with a medical report, instead she was recommended to book an NHS anomaly scan as the baby’s head could not fully be seen. The studio also gave the expectant mother a gender reveal cannon and a teddy bear with a recording of her baby’s heartbeat.

Sadly, Charlotte only discovered her baby would not survive when she showed images of the scan to a friend who is an experienced sonographer – a day after her gender reveal party. She told BBC News: "I was distraught. You've bonded with that baby. To get that news the next day, I then had to go and tell every single one of those people what happened."

"It's like a deep cut feeling," she added. "All of it could have just been avoided, we could have processed the news all together as a family because I was with my mum and dad, I would have had the support there."

Window to the Womb claim all its staff are registered with the Health and Care Professions Council, however BBC News has learned the sonographer who conducted Charlotte’s scan was not. The company apologised to Charlotte at the time.

The company said: "An anomaly was identified however the communication from the sonographer was not to the standard that we expect." It added that the sonographer in question left shortly afterwards, and the incident led to best practice being reinforced across its studios.

"I knew something was wrong straight away"

A company which say they do not diagnose medical problems, Meet Your Miracle, advertises scans which its website says "visualise" wellbeing.

BBC News has seen messages from a WhatsApp group of the company's management and sonographers in which customer scans were shared and reviewed, sometimes during appointments.

One sonographer told the group of her guilt after having to let a woman leave without making her aware of a possible abnormality identified by a colleague as potentially being foetal hydrops, a condition with a very low chance of survival.

"I knew something was wrong straight away, didn't know what to do," reads a message from the sonographer. Shortly after, she added: "I feel terrible at saying nothing and I'm wracked with guilt for not saying anything."

A former employee of Meet Your Miracle told the BBC that despite it being a non-medical company, women who were bleeding and in pain were still accepted for scans instead of being recommended to immediately contact their doctor.

Meet Your Miracle says its scans are largely "recreational" and under its registration it "cannot discuss any concerns unless they are relevant to the baby's heartbeat nor offer a potential diagnosis which requires further tests by the NHS". It says it advises women bleeding and in pain to attend the NHS.

Advice from the NHS says bleeding during pregnancy is relatively common and doesn't always mean there's a problem – but it can be a dangerous sign and they advise women to call their midwife or GP immediately if they have any bleeding from their vagina.

"Catalogue of incredibly poor practice"

BBC News investigated the practices of many private companies and worryingly uncovered concerns about how the industry operates as a whole, including:

  • Women undergoing private baby scans more than a dozen times during pregnancies not regarded as high risk. The NHS provides two scans unless there is a clinical need for more
  • Companies offering non-essential '4D' scans during lockdown which visualise the foetus but have no medical benefit to women
  • Failure to diagnose an ectopic pregnancy and multiple spina bifida cases
  • Use of doppler function to listen to heartbeats of foetuses under 12 weeks despite NICE guidance recommending against routine use in low-risk pregnancies

According to Jacqueline Torrington, a lecturer in medical ultrasound at City University London, these findings reveal a "catalogue of incredibly poor practice". 

She said: "[There is] an entire range of harms here, which are completely unnecessary. It ranges from incredibly dangerous to anxiety inducing to false reassurance."

"Growing concern"

In England, all private studios must register with the CQC which regulates the care provided by services. But concerningly, the BBC discovered that the CQC does not review samples of scans during its inspections – even finding a studio that which has not been inspected by the CQC four years after opening.

The CQC says it bases decisions over which studios to inspect on "information of concern" or according to risk. It added there is good quality care in the industry as a whole but it has a "growing concern".

Gill Edwards is Partner in our renowned Clinical Negligence team and a member of mother and baby charity Baby Lifeline's Clinical Advisory Panel. Gill said:

"Having a baby is a very exciting time, but mother and baby also need careful monitoring to ensure that both are healthy. It is irresponsible if private baby scanning studios do not impress upon expectant mothers that there is a medical element to scanning. It seems premature to me to offer ‘souvenir’ images of the baby before mothers have had an anomaly scan to confirm whether there is any medical problem with the baby."

Gill is a Partner within the Clinical Negligence team here at Potter Rees Dolan Serious Injury Solicitors. Should you have any questions about aspects of this article or clinical negligence issues, please do not hesitate to call our expert solicitors on 0800 027 2557. Alternatively, contact Gill directly here.