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Private Baby Scan Boom - Reassurance or Risk?

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Over recent years there has been an increase in expectant parents paying for private ultrasound scans. These are frequently referred to as “reassurance” scans but private companies who offer these scans sometimes offer them labelled as a “diagnostic scan” or a “souvenir scan”.

At times during the Covid-19 pandemic, partners have been unable to attend the NHS ultrasound scans but private companies have been allowing this to take place. This has led to an increased uptake in private scanning as expectant parents often like to attend such scans together. Private scans also enable expectant parents to have more opportunities to see their baby than are offered by the NHS’ timetabling and can be particularly inviting to those that are anxious about their pregnancy. 

The private scans can cost anywhere from £60-£100 each and can offer a range of different services from wellbeing checks to abnormality reviews and gender scanning. However, it seems that sometimes expectant parents may be being misled by the term “reassurance scan”. 

One of the issues with the private scans is that there is often a very short appointment time. Sometimes they are just 10 minutes, to include taking photographs and providing a report. Another more serious issue, is that sometimes the sonographers who are performing the ultrasound scan are not appropriately qualified. 

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the BBC investigated some of the companies who were offering these services. One case was highlighted because it identified a failing, by a private scanning service, to detect a serious birth defect. The customer left the scan with information on the gender of their baby, which they had sought in anticipation of their gender reveal party and clutching a teddy bear with a recording of the baby’s heartbeat, despite the fact that, sadly, the foetus was not viable. The mum had not even been advised to attend for an NHS scan. 

It was only when the scan photographs were shown to a family friend who was also a qualified and practising sonographer, that they were told that the baby had a condition called Anencephaly and could not survive. Anencephaly is a serious birth defect which causes a baby is born with parts of the brain and skull missing. On the scan report the sonographer had merely stated that the head could not fully be seen. In this case it transpired that the sonographer involved was not registered with an appropriate professional body. 

The investigation also found that, despite specifically offering scans to detect abnormalities, there had been three missed cases of Spina Bifida, by this particular company, in a single week. 

In this particular company an anonymous employee explained that there wasn’t enough time allocated to enable them to complete the scans properly,and that it was difficult for them to concentrate in what they were looking at due to the presence of  someone in the consultation who was trying to sell products. This sort of distraction would not happen at an NHS anomaly scan. 

Another company who offered a “reassurance scan with a wellbeing report” was found to have allowed parents to leave without telling them about possible abnormalities because, despite the name of the scan that they were offering, the company also openly stated that they were not there to diagnose problems. When booking a reassurance and wellbeing scan, parents may not realise that this could mean that they are not told about possible abnormalities. This non-medical company was also found to be accepting women who were experiencing symptoms of bleeding and pain for reassurance scans, rather than referring them to the NHS. 

Sonographers are not regulated but the Care Quality Commission (CQC) is responsible for regulating the services that private scanning companies provide. There is a register of sonographers (a category of the Register of Clinical Technologists (RCT) but registration is voluntary and not mandatory. However, just because they are not registered on the RCT does not mean that they are not registered elsewhere as a radiographer, nurse, midwife or doctor.   

The CQC  have issued guidance on choosing a baby scanning service. The service must be registered with them if they offer diagnostic procedures that use ultrasound (sonography) to examine the body; this includes baby scans. 

Susan Prior, partner at Shoosmiths’ Thames Valley office, based in Reading. recommends that:

  • if an expectant mother has any concerns during her pregnancy, such as bleeding or pain, she should not book a private reassurance scan but should contact her maternity carer (usually her midwife or consultant) for advice or attend hospital.
  • parents should check whether the service they are choosing is registered by searching on the CQC website. If it is not registered, then they may be practising illegally and so will not be insured against any mistakes that they make.
  • in advance of the reassurance scan, parents should check with the sonographer who will be performing the scan as to what qualifications they hold to ascertain whether the sonographer is properly qualified. Parents can also ask about whether the sonographer is on a statutory or voluntary register.
  • parents should be aware that these private scans are not a replacement for the NHS scans offered but can be seen as a nice addition if you want to see your baby in-between the NHS scans. You should still attend your routine NHS scans which are planned at 8 to 14 weeks and then 18 to 21 weeks of your pregnancy.

Unfortunately, despite the issues that have been highlighted, there is still no professional regulation of sonographers. The Society of Radiographers is campaigning for such regulation but, until it is in place, prospective parents should take care to ask the right questions and to attend their routinely offered fetal anomaly screening programme scans.

 
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Disclaimer

This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. © Shoosmiths LLP 2022

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