BBC investigation shows poor practice in private baby scan industry

A BBC News investigation has found that some private baby scanning studios are misleading customers by advertising “reassurance” scans that do not diagnose serious conditions and abnormalities.

Are private baby scans safe?

There are more than 200 private baby scanning studios in the UK that offer a variety of services. Some can diagnose medical problems, while others provide souvenir images or videos of the ultrasound. 

Many women have found private scans to be a positive experience. However, the issue raised by BBC investigation is that some of these studios sell scans offering "reassurance", when in reality they have no real medical benefit. The investigation has also found evidence of women not being told about serious conditions and abnormalities that have been detected.

BBC News looked at the practices of many private companies and also uncovered concerns about how the industry operates more widely including:

  • Failure to diagnose an ectopic pregnancy and multiple spina bifida cases
  • 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
  • A studio which has not been inspected by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) in England four years after opening
  • Companies offering non-essential '4D' scans during lockdown which visualise the foetus but have no medical benefit to women
  • Use of doppler function to listen to heartbeats of foetuses under 12 weeks despite NICE guidance recommending against routine use in low-risk pregnancies

The Care Quality Commission, where all studios need to register, says there is good quality care in the industry, but it has a "growing concern".

What is an ultrasound?

An ultrasound scan is a way of looking at your baby in the womb. The scans can check the date your baby is due, tell whether you're having more than one baby and pick up on some possible problems.

All pregnant women are offered ultrasound scans at 8 to 14 weeks and a second at 18 to 21 weeks, as part of their routine NHS antenatal care. These scans are the safest way to monitor your baby’s health and development. They also check the health and position of your placenta. 

You may be offered more scans if your pregnancy is considered high risk.

What if I have symptoms I am concerned about?

The BBC investigation found that some women who were bleeding and in pain were accepted for scans, rather than being recommended to contact the NHS.

If you experience bleeding, cramping or pain during early pregnancy, contact your GP, midwife or Early Pregnancy Unit straight away for advice. Maternity services are still running despite the pandemic.

Tommy’s midwife Amima says:

“We understand why many women and couples consider having a private ultrasound scan for reassurance, especially if they have lost a baby before.

It’s also clear why the COVID-19 pandemic has caused an increase in private scans. Many women have had to go to their scans alone, which may be very upsetting, especially if something is wrong. By having a private scan, couples can go through the experience together.

Choosing to have a private ultrasound scan is a very personal decision. But these scans should not be instead of the routine ultrasound scans offered to you by the NHS.” 

Commenting on the investigation, Dr Edward Morris, President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said:

“We agree the issues raised in this BBC investigation are concerning and would welcome a review into how women receive their information about private scans.

“What is most important when it comes to private scans is that women and their partners fully understand what type of scan the sonographer is doing. Whilst some private scanning companies can offer a full diagnostic check to make sure the pregnancy is progressing normally, others aren't able to provide the same service and won't pick up on problems with the woman or their baby.

“It could cause immense problems if people believe the scan will check for any potential complications when it’s purely to get a good photograph. Private companies have a duty of care to ensure their customers know what type of scan they are paying for.”