Abnormal blood flow patterns in fetal circulation detected by Doppler ultrasound may indicate poor fetal prognosis. It is also possible that false positive Doppler ultrasound findings could lead to adverse outcomes from unnecessary interventions, including preterm delivery.
The objective of this review was to assess the effects of Doppler ultrasound used to assess fetal well-being in high-risk pregnancies on obstetric care and fetal outcomes.
We updated the search of Cochrane Pregnancy and Childbirth's Trials Register on 31 March 2017 and checked reference lists of retrieved studies.
Randomised and quasi-randomised controlled trials of Doppler ultrasound for the investigation of umbilical and fetal vessels waveforms in high-risk pregnancies compared with no Doppler ultrasound. Cluster-randomised trials were eligible for inclusion but none were identified.
Two review authors independently assessed the studies for inclusion, assessed risk of bias and carried out data extraction. Data entry was checked. We assessed the quality of evidence using the GRADE approach.
Nineteen trials involving 10,667 women were included. Risk of bias in trials was difficult to assess accurately due to incomplete reporting. None of the evidence relating to our main outcomes was graded as high quality. The quality of evidence was downgraded due to missing information on trial methods, imprecision in risk estimates and heterogeneity. Eighteen of these studies compared the use of Doppler ultrasound of the umbilical artery of the unborn baby with no Doppler or with cardiotocography (CTG). One more recent trial compared Doppler examination of other fetal blood vessels (ductus venosus) with computerised CTG.The use of Doppler ultrasound of the umbilical artery in high-risk pregnancy was associated with fewer perinatal deaths (risk ratio (RR) 0.71, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.52 to 0.98, 16 studies, 10,225 babies, 1.2% versus 1.7 %, number needed to treat (NNT) = 203; 95% CI 103 to 4352, evidence graded moderate). The results for stillbirths were consistent with the overall rate of perinatal deaths, although there was no clear difference between groups for this outcome (RR 0.65, 95% CI 0.41 to 1.04; 15 studies, 9560 babies, evidence graded low). Where Doppler ultrasound was used, there were fewer inductions of labour (average RR 0.89, 95% CI 0.80 to 0.99, 10 studies, 5633 women, random-effects, evidence graded moderate) and fewer caesarean sections (RR 0.90, 95% CI 0.84 to 0.97, 14 studies, 7918 women, evidence graded moderate). There was no comparative long-term follow-up of babies exposed to Doppler ultrasound in pregnancy in women at increased risk of complications.No difference was found in operative vaginal births (RR 0.95, 95% CI 0.80 to 1.14, four studies, 2813 women), nor in Apgar scores less than seven at five minutes (RR 0.92, 95% CI 0.69 to 1.24, seven studies, 6321 babies, evidence graded low). Data for serious neonatal morbidity were not pooled due to high heterogeneity between the three studies that reported it (1098 babies) (evidence graded very low).The use of Doppler to evaluate early and late changes in ductus venosus in early fetal growth restriction was not associated with significant differences in any perinatal death after randomisation. However, there was an improvement in long-term neurological outcome in the cohort of babies in whom the trigger for delivery was either late changes in ductus venosus or abnormalities seen on computerised CTG.
Current evidence suggests that the use of Doppler ultrasound on the umbilical artery in high-risk pregnancies reduces the risk of perinatal deaths and may result in fewer obstetric interventions. The results should be interpreted with caution, as the evidence is not of high quality. Serial monitoring of Doppler changes in ductus venosus may be beneficial, but more studies of high quality with follow-up including neurological development are needed for evidence to be conclusive.