Comparison of the learning curves of digital examination and transabdominal sonography for the determination of fetal head position during labor

Ultrasound Obstet Gynecol. 2008 Mar;31(3):332-7. doi: 10.1002/uog.5267.


Objectives: To evaluate the learning curve of transabdominal sonography for the determination of fetal head position in labor and to compare it with that of digital vaginal examination.

Methods: A student midwife who had never performed digital vaginal examination or ultrasound examination was recruited for this study. Instructions on how to perform digital vaginal examination and ultrasound examination were given before and after completing the first vaginal and ultrasound examinations, and repeated for each subsequent examination for as long as necessary. Digital and ultrasound diagnoses of the fetal head position were always performed first by the student midwife, and repeated by an experienced midwife or physician. The learning curve for identification of the fetal head position by either one of the two methods was analyzed using the cumulative sums (CUSUM) method for measurement errors.

Results: One hundred patients underwent digital vaginal examination and 99 had transabdominal sonography for the determination of fetal head position. An error rate of around 50% for vaginal examination was nearly constant during the first 50 examinations. It decreased subsequently, to stabilize at a low level from the 82(nd) patient. Errors of +/- 180 degrees were the most frequent. The learning curve for ultrasound imaging stabilized earlier than that of vaginal examination, after the 32(nd) patient. The most frequent errors with ultrasound examination were the inability to conclude on a diagnosis, particularly at the beginning of training, followed by errors of +/- 45 degrees.

Conclusions: Based on our findings for the student tested, learning and accuracy of the determination of fetal head position in labor were easier and higher, respectively, with transabdominal sonography than with digital examination. This should encourage physicians to introduce clinical ultrasound examination into their practice. CUSUM charts provide a reliable representation of the learning curve, by accumulating evidence of performance.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Delivery, Obstetric
  • Education, Nursing / methods*
  • Female
  • Gestational Age
  • Humans
  • Labor Presentation*
  • Labor Stage, Second
  • Labor, Obstetric
  • Midwifery / education*
  • Palpation
  • Physical Examination / methods*
  • Pregnancy
  • Prospective Studies
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Ultrasonography, Prenatal / methods*