A fetal echocardiogram is a study performed by a specialised machine that uses high frequency sound waves (ultrasound) reflected from various structures in and around the heart of the fetus. This provides information about both the structure and function of the heart. Detail about the anatomy of the heart and the function of the heart muscle and valves can be obtained. The equipment and principles are the same as that used for routine obstetric ultrasound.
A Fetal Echocardiogram is completely painless. A physician or technician uses a hand-held transducer (like a camera lens) to transmit and receive sound waves that are beyond the hearing range. A thick gel is used to assist transmission of the sound waves and improve picture quality. The information received by the transducer is then processed by a highly sophisticated computer to provide images on a video screen. These images are also supplemented by sounds or colour which helps to assess patterns of blood flow in the circulation. Sometimes the position of the fetus makes it difficult to see all heart structures. In that case we may ask you to move around the room or even come back a little later if we feel that will improve the chances of seeing all the heart structures.
There are no known harmful effects of a Fetal Echocardiogram on the fetus.
From about 16 18 weeks we can potentially see all the main heart chambers, heart valves and main blood vessels directly attaching to the heart, and establish information about the heart rate and rhythm. We can establish, with a high degree of certainty, the presence of the most important congenital abnormalities of the heart.
Sometimes it is not possible to see all the heart structures because of the position or size of the fetus. This does not mean that they are not there, but may mean that for technical reasons they can not be assessed at that time. Sometimes this information may not be important; while in some cases it means that definite answers are not possible. The echocardiographer will discuss this with you, and repeat studies are frequently performed later in the pregnancy.
Certain congenital heart abnormalities are hard to detect by fetal echocardiograms, but often these are trivial abnormalities. Routine review of the heart, as normally carried out in newborns, should always be performed if there are concerns and then followed up, even if the study is normal.
Certain communications between the two sides of the circulation are normally present in all developing babies and normally close after birth. We are not able to tell in advance whether this will occur, however there is only a tiny chance that they will not. Persistence of these structures is generally not a difficult problem to deal with.
We direct our attention only to the heart, where we have special expertise. This is not the same as your general obstetric ultrasound scan. Other ultrasound information about the fetus can be obtained from an obstetric ultrasonographer or your obstetrician.
Some abnormalities cannot be identified prior to birth.
In general, we will inform you of the results of the scan when it is completed.
Please ask any questions and we will try to answer them. Sometimes this may be difficult during the study when the echocardiographer may need to concentrate on obtaining all the information necessary, so please be patient with us.