Horrors of the High St baby scans

Horrors of the High St baby scans: It’s a booming industry – but as these distraught mothers reveal, far too many clinics make heartbreaking blunders – including failing to spot SERIOUS abnormalities

  • An increasing number of pregnant women are paying up to £217 for extra scans 
  • Sarah Louise Belcher, 29, had a High Street scan after she began feeling unwell
  • She recalls the private scan failing to spot abnormalities in her unborn baby
  • Her daughter went on to be delivered prematurely and died six days later  
  • Faye Mortlock, 36, had a private ultrasound scan at Babybond in Cardiff
  • She claims the clinic were unsure what to do when she miscarried

A pregnancy scan is supposed to be a magical moment, whether it’s the first time you hear the reassuring ‘whump-whump-whump’ of a tiny heartbeat or the big ‘boy-or-girl’ reveal.

So it’s no surprise that business is booming for private scanning firms. While the NHS typically scans just twice — at 12 weeks and again at 20 — women are increasingly supplementing this with extra scans for as little as £40.

According to one poll, the average woman now spends £217 on extra scans during her pregnancy, with private clinics offering ‘souvenir’ scans and printing baby’s first photo on keyrings and mugs.

And while for many such scans are a harmless treat, there are serious concerns about whether proper standards are being met — and even how safe extra scans may be.

Faye Mortlock, 36, (pictured) who had a private ultrasound scan at Babybond in Cardiff shared how the clinic struggled to help after discovering she had a miscarriage 

Sarah Louise Belcher is ‘haunted’ by a private ultrasound scan she had with a High Street firm, which failed to spot serious abnormalities in her unborn baby.

The little girl, who she named Maya, would go on to be delivered prematurely just before 31 weeks, and died six days later in January this year.

While Sarah accepts that ultimately there was nothing anyone could have done to save Maya, she is tormented by the knowledge that she delayed getting medical help because the private scan suggested she had nothing to worry about.

She also fears for other women and their babies.

‘I still suffer flashbacks from that private scan,’ she says. ‘Maya was struggling, yet I was told she was fine. I have to live knowing she went another two days without any doctors helping her.’

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Sarah, 29, a legal PA from Uxbridge, Greater London, was 29 weeks pregnant when she started to feel unwell, and desperately wanted to know if her baby was OK. ‘I hadn’t felt her moving as much, and I’d had quite a bit of pain around my ribs,’ says Sarah, who’s married to Adam, 33, an engineer. ‘Because it was the weekend I thought that our local hospital probably couldn’t scan me that same day, so I got up at the crack of dawn to find a private place.’

She made an appointment that afternoon at Window To The Womb in Hanwell, West London. The firm has 32 clinics, which it says are all staffed by qualified sonographers or doctors and perform 100,000 scans a year.

It offers various packages including 4D scans — 3D images in real time — with names such as VIP Baby and Born To Be A Star. Prices range from £55 to £135.

Researchers claim the average woman is spending £217 on extra scans during her pregnancy as the NHS typically provides just two scans (file image) 

The company made headlines earlier this year when it was reported that another branch incorrectly told a couple they’d had a ‘missed miscarriage’, where the baby dies without any symptoms.

The clinic referred the couple to hospital, and they were considering surgery to remove the pregnancy when an NHS scan revealed a heartbeat. The couple’s healthy daughter arrived in May. The firm apologised and described it as ‘an isolated incident’.

However, Sarah’s experience would suggest differently.

‘The appointment was rushed,’ she recalls. ‘Halfway through, the machine cut out, the sonographer and the assistant were fumbling around for five or ten minutes trying to get it to work. In the end, she wasn’t actually scanning me for very long. But she reassured me that the baby was absolutely fine. Most importantly, I’d seen my baby alive. I convinced myself I was over-reacting.’

It so happened that the following Monday Sarah had a non-pregnancy related hospital appointment, requiring a scan — and it was then that Sarah and Adam learned, to their horror, that Maya was anything but fine. Her heart was massively enlarged, a result of a rare condition that she couldn’t survive.

‘Her heart was taking up nearly the whole of her chest cavity. It must have been obvious, because as soon as they turned on the machine, one of the sonographers said: “Oh my goodness, can you see that?” They told me it was extremely unlikely it wouldn’t have been visible 48 hours ago. I don’t know how the private firm could have missed it.

Katie Atkinson, 28, (pictured) who had a private scan at Show Your Bump, in Wigan was told she was at risk of miscarriage and began to accept that she’d lost her child 

‘I checked all the paperwork, and they’d ticked everything apart from the heart. So either they didn’t check, or they did see something and chose to ignore it — either way, it’s extremely worrying and unacceptable.

‘It haunts me now, thinking what would have happened if I hadn’t had that NHS scan. Her condition meant Maya would have been stillborn within a couple of weeks — and had that happened without warning, there’s no way I’d ever have believed there was nothing we could have done to save her.’ When contacted, Window To The Womb apologised and admitted in an email they ‘were not entirely satisfied’ the sonographer had followed protocol. They confirmed the person who had carried out the scan no longer worked for them and offered a refund.

A spokesman added: ‘We take our responsibilities extremely seriously and provide valuable services to many, many women.’

Yet Sarah is not convinced. ‘These companies are preying on women’s anxieties,’ she says. ‘Yet they seem to forget the main reason many women are there is to check their babies are alive and well, and I wonder if they are competent enough to do that.’

Faye Mortlock, a 36-year-old nurse specialist from Cardiff, booked a ‘souvenir’ scan as a present for her accountant husband Kevin, 42, when 14 weeks pregnant with her second baby in 2012.

‘I’d had the first scan on the NHS, but Kevin hadn’t been able to come,’ recalls Faye. ‘It was around the time of our paper (first) wedding anniversary — so I thought I’d book an extra scan, and the photo could be my “paper” gift to him.’

The couple went to their nearest clinic, Babybond in Cardiff. There are 86 Babybond clinics in the UK, 25 in branches of Mothercare, with prices from £39.

‘Normally they turn the screen around straightaway and say “look, there’s your baby, there’s the heartbeat”,’ says Faye. ‘But the woman took that little bit too long — and I just knew.

‘I could see the look on her face as she was trying to find a heartbeat, she was moving the scanner around and pressing down harder and harder. In the end, I had to ask: “There isn’t a heartbeat, is there?”

Sarah Louise (pictured with Adam and Maya before her death) believes High Street clinics have lost sight of mothers having scans to check if their baby’s ok

‘She said she was sorry, but no. And then she didn’t know what to do. There was nobody else who could confirm the miscarriage, and when we asked where we should go now, she didn’t know.

‘We were both shell-shocked and I remember feeling like they should be handling it, rather than making us do it. She was kind, but clearly didn’t know what to do.’

The couple tearfully ended up in hospital where it was confirmed she had lost her baby.

They now have three children: Bella, seven, Sam, five, and Olivia, three, but Faye still worries about other women who discover that they have miscarried during a private scan.

Any clinic offering pregnancy scanning in England has to be registered with the Care Quality Commission. Guidelines require ‘clear processes to escalate unexpected or significant findings’. Inspectors are expected to check ‘how the provider [would] respond if they did not detect the baby’s heartbeat’. In Wales, where Faye was scanned, however, private scanning clinics are not required to register with the Health Inspectorate unless they are run by a doctor.

‘It’s vital private clinics have proper procedures in place to advise couples when a scan doesn’t go well,’ says Ruth Bender Atik, national director of the Miscarriage Association. ‘It’s a hugely distressing time when someone loses a baby. The crucial thing is that women are given proper guidance of the next steps.’

Ruth is also concerned that some women — especially highly anxious ones, who’ve experienced miscarriages before — might feel the urge to have multiple scans.

Although there have been no reported incidents of harm from scans, which use high frequency soundwaves that travel through the unborn baby, there are safety concerns over extra scans.

The British Medical Ultrasound Society ‘disapproves’ of scans solely for souvenir purposes, a position shared by the World Federation of Ultrasound in Medicine and Biology, and the International Society for Ultrasound in Obstetrics & Gynaecology.

Katie (pictured) who writes a blog about living without her son, wishes that she didn’t have the private scan

In a 2015 joint statement, they said that because ‘ultrasound involves exposure to a form of energy’ this could have an effect on the foetus and so ‘the uncontrolled use of ultrasound without medical benefits should be avoided’. With this in mind, Ruth Bender Atik says the terminology in some scanning firms’ advertising is extremely concerning.

‘These clinics sometimes advertise “reassurance” scans, and that term worries me,’ she says. ‘Because women who’ve had a previous loss often say any reassurance doesn’t last long at all, or that they would have a scan every day if they could.

‘I would hope any private clinic would have some understanding of this mindset, and would flag this up, but I don’t know if that’s always the case.’

Care Quality Commission guidelines specify that inspectors should check whether women are given information about the risks of frequent scanning.

Katie Atkinson, 28, who lives near Bolton with husband Jonathan, 32, and daughter, Violet, two, booked a private scan last year, when she was six weeks pregnant and experiencing some bleeding.

‘I’d had an NHS scan, but they said it was too early to tell,’ says Katie, a nurse. ‘I was on edge and needed to know what was going on.’

A sonographer at Show Your Bump, in Wigan, told Katie that her uterus looked ‘very low’ and she was ‘probably going to miscarry’.

‘They said there was no heartbeat, and the position of the uterus “wasn’t a good sign”.Ten hellish days later, Katie turned up for a follow-up NHS appointment fully expecting the terrible news to be confirmed.

‘When they told me there was a heartbeat, I asked if they were joking . . . I’d already accepted that we’d lost the baby,’ she says. ‘You accept what they say — they’re supposed to be the experts.’

Sadly, Katie and Jonathan later lost the baby — a boy, who they named Jonah — at 21 weeks due to a problem with the placenta.

‘I wish I hadn’t gone for that scan,’ says Katie, who writes about living without their son at wildflowers-blog.com. ‘We got so little time with Jonah anyway, and in that time between those early scans, in my head, he didn’t exist.

‘You’re so vulnerable in those first 12 weeks, you just want to know your baby is OK — but I don’t think these scans are a good idea.’

Professor Christoph Lees, of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, says scanning companies should be robustly regulated. ‘Mistakes can be made in early pregnancy and the consequences are serious,’ he says. ‘Diagnosis can be difficult even for experienced operators. So any clinic needs robust protocols for rescanning and in certain circumstances, a second qualified person to give a view.’

You can check whether a clinic is registered with the Care Quality Commission via its website. However, last year, it was reported that of 93 registered services only 15 had been inspected.

The CQC told the Mail: ‘We have been inspecting these services based on information of concern or according to risk and we will continue to do so.’

Both Window To The Womb and Babybond say their clinics are registered.

Window To The Womb says all its scans are ‘completed by either a qualified diagnostic sonographer or doctor’, and that ‘the primary purpose . . . is the health and well-being of the baby and mother’.

Babybond says clients are seen by a ‘qualified health professional, who follows the latest safety guidelines’. ‘We don’t offer non-diagnostic 4D scans purely for entertainment and we’ll never recommend unnecessary scans,’ a spokesman added.

Sarah believes High Street clinics have lost sight of the purpose of a pregnancy scan.

She says: ‘Even now, after Maya’s died, I get online adverts pop up, pushing cheap deals on private scans — they say things like “see your baby earlier”.

‘But, ultimately, it’s a medical procedure, and women just want to know that their baby is OK. These clinics need to remember that.’

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