Ultrasounds marketed as keepsakes
Doctors fear frequent practice may be unsafe for moms-to-be
By Debra Goldschmidt
(CNN) -- A baby's first picture is usually taken while in the womb -- it's not a portrait but an ultrasound.
For the typical low-risk pregnancy, insurance usually picks up the tab for one ultrasound. "I don't see a lot of reasons to have more than one," said Dr. Joshua Copel, an obstetrician at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.
Don't tell that to expectant mothers at Fetal Fotos in Salt Lake City, Utah, where pregnant women come in with their families and friends just to get a look at the baby. The benefit is not medical but emotional.
At 17 weeks' pregnant, Kassie Vincent drove a few hours from Idaho with her family to find out the sex of her baby, even though her doctor had scheduled an ultrasound for her at 20 weeks. "We were just too excited to wait," Vincent said.
Alicia Aiken, president of Fetal Fotos Inc., said her company provides "a service that women want."
"Women come for the video; they come here for the extra reassurance," Aiken said. "They come for the pictures and just to view the baby."
It's also said to be a bonding experience. Dr. Laura Riley of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, however, said parents "can bond with the baby when it comes out."
The cost ranges between $60 and $120, depending on image resolution and store location.
Amy Farnsworth and her husband, Ryan, were seeking information about the baby's gender and more. "We also wanted to see it because the first ultrasound was just a little dot, and so we wanted the video and some pictures to share," Amy Farnsworth said.
Couples can walk away with a keepsake for their child's photo album and a video set to music. Many expectant moms come more than once during their pregnancy.
The American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine estimates there are thousands of businesses such as Fetal Fotos.
Doctors, however, said they are concerned that too many ultrasounds may be unsafe. There is no documented danger, but this same technology is used to heat tissue for therapy and -- at high frequencies -- to break apart kidney stones and gallstones.
Doctors said they also worry that frequent ultrasounds will give an expectant mother and her family a false sense of security.
"The problems that the ultrasound present are that the family is not getting any helpful information for managing the pregnancy," Copel said. "Nobody is looking at measurements to see if the baby is growing properly, isn't too big or too small, to see if the due date is correct.
"Nobody is providing oversight to the sonographer to evaluate the fetal anatomy and make sure the baby is developing normally."
Fetal Fotos said it doesn't claim to offer prenatal care -- these women already have doctors.
The Food and Drug Administration said women should be discouraged from having so-called keepsake ultrasounds. The agency calls such ultrasounds an unapproved use of a medical device and said it has sent warnings to a number of these businesses. But it has not shut down any of these facilities.
Aiken said the FDA has visited Fetal Fotos. "They have evaluated our business, and we do follow every guideline that they set forth for us in using that equipment properly," she said.
But the FDA said no guidelines exist for what it calls "enterprising commercial ultrasonic imaging of fetuses."
These concerns do not appear to be keeping expectant mothers away.
Fetal Fotos is "extremely busy," Aiken said.
The business said that it plans to have 10 stores by year's end and that it has numerous applications from people wanting to start their own franchises.