Doctors have an increasingly effective tool in their efforts to diagnose and treat congenital heart disease—the most common birth defect in the United States.
In the hands of an expert, the sophisticated and sensitive ultrasound test known as “fetal echocardiography” can detect heart problems in a fetus as early as four months after conception. That gives doctors time to prepare for an emergency situation at birth, or even treat some problems before birth.
University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital has Maternal Fetal Medicine experts with specialized training in fetal echocardiography and three pediatric cardiologists who offer this service: Shanthi Sivanandam, MD; Matthew Ambrose, MD; and Aura Sanchez, MD.
We spoke with Sanchez and asked her to tell us more about the test and its benefits.
If your obstetrician recommends the test, don’t panic.
An obstetrician will recommend a fetal echocardiogram when he or she suspects a fetus may have a congenital heart defect, or because he or she detected an abnormal heart rate in a standard obstetric ultrasound. Congenital heart defects occur in about one out of every 100 births, Sanchez said.
However, fetal echocardiograms are most often ordered as a precautionary measure if you have a condition that increases your risk for fetal heart defects, like diabetes; if you’ve had a previous child with congenital heart disease; or if you’ve been exposed to certain infections or medications.
Doctors gain valuable insight from fetal echocardiography.
The test can detect a range of problems, including congenital heart defects, arrhythmias, cardiac tumors and abnormalities in the heart function, according to Sanchez Mejia. It allows a doctor to counsel the expecting parents, make arrangements for delivery at an appropriate medical center, make a plan for those fetuses requiring urgent interventions after birth or even treat fetal heart rhythm problems. Experts can use this test to evaluate the effect on the heart of non-cardiac disorders and determine whether further treatment is necessary.
The exam is risk free.
Fetal echocardiography uses ultrasound technology, which does not cause any harm to the fetus or the mother.
Unlike many medical procedures, there are no pre-test requirements.
The study can be done without the need for an empty stomach or a full bladder, Sanchez Mejia said. A specialized technician, known as a sonographer, performs the test, which takes roughly 45 minutes. The fetal cardiologist reviews all the images acquired and often takes additional ones. Once the scan is completed, he or she sits down with the parents and explains to them the findings of the scan and their implications.