Background: Screening and monitoring in pregnancy are strategies used by healthcare providers to identify high-risk pregnancies so that they can provide more targeted and appropriate treatment and follow-up care, and to monitor fetal well-being in both low- and high-risk pregnancies. The use of many of these techniques is controversial and their ability to detect fetal compromise often unknown. Theoretically, appropriate management of maternal and fetal risk factors and complications that are detected in pregnancy and labour could prevent a large proportion of the world's 3.2 million estimated annual stillbirths, as well as minimise maternal and neonatal morbidity and mortality.
Methods: The fourth in a series of papers assessing the evidence base for prevention of stillbirths, this paper reviews available published evidence for the impact of 14 screening and monitoring interventions in pregnancy on stillbirth, including identification and management of high-risk pregnancies, advanced monitoring techniques, and monitoring of labour. Using broad and specific strategies to search PubMed and the Cochrane Library, we identified 221 relevant reviews and studies testing screening and monitoring interventions during the antenatal and intrapartum periods and reporting stillbirth or perinatal mortality as an outcome.
Results: We found a dearth of rigorous evidence of direct impact of any of these screening procedures and interventions on stillbirth incidence. Observational studies testing some interventions, including fetal movement monitoring and Doppler monitoring, showed some evidence of impact on stillbirths in selected high-risk populations, but require larger rigourous trials to confirm impact. Other interventions, such as amniotic fluid assessment for oligohydramnios, appear predictive of stillbirth risk, but studies are lacking which assess the impact on perinatal mortality of subsequent intervention based on test findings. Few rigorous studies of cardiotocography have reported stillbirth outcomes, but steep declines in stillbirth rates have been observed in high-income settings such as the U.S., where cardiotocography is used in conjunction with Caesarean section for fetal distress.
Conclusion: There are numerous research gaps and large, adequately controlled trials are still needed for most of the interventions we considered. The impact of monitoring interventions on stillbirth relies on use of effective and timely intervention should problems be detected. Numerous studies indicated that positive tests were associated with increased perinatal mortality, but while some tests had good sensitivity in detecting distress, false-positive rates were high for most tests, and questions remain about optimal timing, frequency, and implications of testing. Few studies included assessments of impact of subsequent intervention needed before recommending particular monitoring strategies as a means to decrease stillbirth incidence. In high-income countries such as the US, observational evidence suggests that widespread use of cardiotocography with Caesarean section for fetal distress has led to significant declines in stillbirth rates. Efforts to increase availability of Caesarean section in low-/middle-income countries should be coupled with intrapartum monitoring technologies where resources and provider skills permit.