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Updated by Maria Birch on 20/02/21

Last week, BBC News lifted the lid on a shocking investigation into private ultrasound scans, revealing…

  • The lady whose contradictory scan report read both “foetus absent” and “normal live pregnancy” and who later came close to losing her life after suffering from an undiagnosed ectopic pregnancy
  • The parent’s whose baby had anencephaly but, rather than being referred to hospital immediately, were allowed to leave and go to a gender reveal party. It was a friend—a sonographer—who looked at the scan images and had to explain that their baby wouldn’t survive
  • The company that claims all its sonographer’s are registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) but the sonographer responsible for not reporting anencephaly to the baby’s parents was not
  • Sonographer’s and managers discussing scans (sometimes during the scan itself), clearly unable to interpret and respond to the findings
  • 3 cases of Spina Bifida missed in one week, despite being “clearly visible” according to the company directors, who described the mistakes as “a pattern of similar and serious errors”
  • The directors of multiple branches using their own social media accounts to plant positive reviews

Well, first and foremost, I have no words for the parent’s who suffered as a result of disgustingly poor care.

As for the report itself…

I don’t appreciate the sweeping generalisation that tarnished every private pregnancy provider with the same brush.

And I don’t agree with the suggestion that parent’s are wrong to seek reassurance or wrong to celebrate their pregnancy with a gender reveal.

But I’m happy to forgive the embellishment because I wholeheartedly support the sentiment of the coverage.

What the BBC accurately revealed are three fundamental problems with the industry as a whole:

Problem #1: Early scans too early

The coverage featured a whistleblower—an NHS sonographer who worked privately at multiple branches.

“There’s nothing wrong with wanting reassurance… but they offer scans from 6 weeks where it’s a bit hit and miss if you can actually see anything,” she said.

I agree that, in many cases, it’s a bad idea to have a scan at 6 weeks—because ultrasound can’t detect a pregnancy any earlier than that.

What they didn’t say is that if you’re not very confident in your dates, and you accidentally have a scan earlier than 6 weeks, the sonographer is unlikely to detect a foetus.

This usually means you’ll be referred to your local NHS early pregnancy service, leading to more anxiety and potentially unnecessary pressure on the NHS.

This is why, unlike the majority of private pregnancy clinics, I do not (and never will) allow parents to choose and pay for an appointment online like ordering a pizza.

Everyone must first complete a questionnaire and discuss their scan personally by email.

That way, I can gage how confident you are in your dates—and your reason for wanting a scan—before agreeing on a sensible appointment.

Problem #2: Unqualified sonographer’s

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the report for many was the revelation that sonography is an unregulated profession.

What does that mean?

Well, if you train as a nurse, midwife, radiographer, doctor or most other healthcare professions, there’s a standard training pathway.

At the end of your training, you must register with a body like the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), General Medical Council (GMC) or Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC).

And you can only register if you’ve passed a program that your professional council recognises.

In other words, you must—at least on paper—demonstrate a certain level of competence in order to practice.

That’s not the case for sonographer’s.

Traditionally, in the UK, ultrasound scans were performed by doctors who specialise in medical imaging (radiologists).

As demand for medical imaging exceeded the supply of radiologists, more and more NHS ultrasound scans were performed by radiographer’s who specialised in ultrasound (sonographer’s).

And now, as NHS services have evolved, ultrasound is used in many different areas of healthcare by a variety of healthcare professionals.

Basically, there’s no set training pathway for the use of medical ultrasound.

What does this all mean?

Simply put, the training, skill and experience of healthcare professionals using ultrasound is VERY diverse.

The government’s response to the report was that the majority of sonographer’s are qualified nurses or radiographers.

Frankly, that’s irrelevant.

A competent radiographer, midwife or other professional does not necessarily make a competent sonographer.

Especially since there’s nothing to stop anybody picking up an ultrasound machine and scanning.

This is a problem in the NHS where there’s a temptation for any healthcare professional to do a “quick scan” rather than wait for a scan performed by a professional with adequate training and experience.

And as the BBC reported, it’s a problem in the private pregnancy ultrasound industry.

Ultimately, the lack of regulation means there’s little to stop a provider (NHS or private) employing a “sonographer” without any training or experience—even if they’re registered under another healthcare profession.

Problem #3: Not enough time

The whistleblowing sonographer described the working conditions of her private employer as “like a conveyor belt.”

She added that companies advertise “all-singing-all-dancing medical checks, pictures… but it can’t all be done in a 5-8-minute scan.”

Nail on the head.

I experienced this first-hand when I had a private early pregnancy scan with Mabel.

I left unsurprised but disheartened that it was so rushed.

In my case, it was perfectly safe.

But then… my pregnancy was healthy.

This is one of the reasons I was inspired to open Sneak-A-Peek Ultrasound.

And is why, despite the financial impact of doing so, I insisted on much longer appointments than any other private clinic.

Summary

In my opinion, the poor care in private pregnancy ultrasound clinics exposed by the BBC is a result of a combination of the factors described above.

Which is why I deliberately designed Sneak-A-Peek scans to address all three issues:

  1. Early scan timing — resolved by speaking to me first so I can suggest an appropriately-timed appointment
  2. Poorly qualified sonographer’s — I’ve a postgraduate diploma in medical ultrasound and been scanning pregnant women for over 8 years. If and when I need some help, it will be from an NHS colleague with at least the same level of training, skill, experience and friendliness.
  3. Rushed scans — all appointment times are at least twice as long (sometimes 3 times as long) as the industry standard.

As for the private industry and ultrasound scans in the NHS, something has to change.

Well-trained sonographer’s and related healthcare professionals have been fighting for the regulation of sonography for years.

Why hasn’t it changed?

Who knows…

But what I do know is that the quality of the care you receive as a patient (or client) is what matters most.

So, whatever the reason for the lack of change, it’s not good enough.

I commend the whistleblowing sonographer and the BBC for revealing the truth.

Hopefully it will trigger or speed up the process of change.

In the meantime, be very careful where you choose to have a scan.

And if you’d like a Sneak-A-Peek scan, begin by taking our free quiz, which will match you with the most suitable scan:

https://sneak-a-peek-ultrasound.co.uk

If you’ve had a scan before, you have my email address — send me a message and I’ll help you personally.

To your health and happiness,

Maria Birch.

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