Getting into the fetal position

August 18, 2006

One of the first stories I wrote for Diagnostic Imaging magazine made a lot of radiologists unhappy. It was about sonographers who were not only performing echocardiograms in private offices but also providing interpretations. One of these techs told me she had to because she knew more about it than the cardiologist. That was 24 years ago.

One of the first stories I wrote for Diagnostic Imaging magazine made a lot of radiologists unhappy. It was about sonographers who were not only performing echocardiograms in private offices but also providing interpretations. One of these techs told me she had to because she knew more about it than the cardiologist. That was 24 years ago.

Today, soon-to-be moms and dads are stepping in for sonographers. They are listening to their unborn baby's heartbeat using fetal Doppler units. There's BabyBeat, which says it was the first company to offer fetal Doppler equipment for home use. The company wants expectant couples to buy its fetal Doppler devices because "Nothing compares to the comfort and peace of mind that comes from hearing everything is all right." I can just see a worried mom-to-be tuning in whenever she needs reassurance.

I would bet that Tracy D. from Massachusetts did. She wrote, "After successive miscarriages, this is just the peace of mind I needed. I can't image (sic) going through the next few months without it." And Tracy didn't even have to buy a monitor. She rented it from HearTones, probably for six months at $96 ("great products, great prices, fast, free shipping; free return shipping, and free bottle of ultrasound lotion"). Who can beat it, unless possibly you're planning a big family. Then you might want to just buy one. These devices are not that expensive.

The BabyCom Home Doppler Fetal Heartbeat Monitor is $145. The Hi Bebe BT 200 is just $115. Not that it's necessary to go cheap. BabyBeat has a fetal heart monitor with a recorder and digital display that traces the heart beat. The cost is $440. With that, you get a 2-oz tube of ultrasound lotion, an audio tape, an instruction manual, helpful tips, and a 9-volt battery, so it's really not all that bad.

Those who offer these monitors are usually careful to protect their hindquarters. BellyBeats, which rents fetal Doppler monitors, states on its Web site under frequently asked questions that the FDA requires users to "contact your doctor and gain consent prior to using a fetal Doppler." This comes after a paragraph about the safety of fetal Doppler that begins, "Constant testing is done by U.S. governmental agencies and no adverse risks to the baby or mother have been detected."

To help close the deal, the company offers free samples of morning sickness lollipops with every rental. If my wife were expecting, I'm not sure that the saccharin assurances and Preggie Pops - really, that is what they are called - would be enough to sway her.

Fifteen years ago our first child had two ultrasound exams before his birth. They were medically indicated. We didn't have any ultrasound exams leading up to the birth of our second child. We could have asked for one, but we're not crazy about radiation administered during pregnancy. The FDA isn't crazy about it either. People who buy fetal heart monitors for home use are supposed to get a doctor's approval before doing so. I wouldn't try to guess how many parents-to-be actually do.

The Web site for BellyBeats, with the onscreen letters blinking soft yellow, pink, and blue, asked for my name, address, e-mail, phone; my preferred shipping method, and my credit card information; but nothing about a doctor's referral. My experience with online services told me I was a click or two away from getting a fetal Doppler monitor and, having no need for one, I emptied my shopping cart.

How can the FDA be sure these monitors are being used properly? It might be a Mission Impossible.