Fetal electrocardiography ST-segment analysis for intrapartum monitoring: a critical appraisal of conflicting evidence and a way forward

Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2019 Dec;221(6):577-601.e11. doi: 10.1016/j.ajog.2019.04.003. Epub 2019 Apr 10.


Background: In the past century, some areas of obstetric including intrapartum care have been slow to benefit from the dramatic advances in technology and medical care. Although fetal heart rate monitoring (cardiotocography) became available a half century ago, its interpretation often differs between institutions and countries, its diagnostic accuracy needs improvement, and a technology to help reduce the unnecessary obstetric interventions that have accompanied the cardiotocography is urgently needed.

Study design: During the second half of the 20th century, key findings in animal experiments captured the close relationship between myocardial glycogenolysis, myocardial workload, and ST changes, thus demonstrating that ST waveform analysis of the fetal electrocardiogram can provide information on oxygenation of the fetal myocardium and establishing the physiological basis for the use of electrocardiogram in intrapartum fetal surveillance.

Results: Six randomized controlled trials, 10 meta-analyses, and more than 20 observational studies have evaluated the technology developed based on this principle. Nonetheless, despite this intensive assessment, differences in study protocols, inclusion criteria, enrollment rates, clinical guidelines, use of fetal blood sampling, and definitions of key outcome parameters, as well as inconsistencies in randomized controlled trial data handling and statistical methodology, have made this voluminous evidence difficult to interpret. Enormous resources spent on randomized controlled trials have failed to guarantee the generalizability of their results to other settings or their ability to reflect everyday clinical practice.

Conclusion: The latest meta-analysis used revised data from primary randomized controlled trials and data from the largest randomized controlled trials from the United States to demonstrate a significant reduction of metabolic acidosis rates by 36% (odds ratio, 0.64; 95% confidence interval, 0.46-0.88) and operative vaginal delivery rates by 8% (relative risk, 0.92; 95% confidence interval, 0.86-0.99), compared with cardiotocography alone.

Keywords: ST segment analysis; acidemia; cardiotocography; cesarean delivery; fetal blood sampling; fetal death; fetal distress; fetal electrocardiogram; fetal heart rate; intrapartum fetal monitoring; meta-analysis; observational studies; perinatal asphyxia; randomized controlled trials; real-world evidence.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cardiotocography / methods*
  • Electrocardiography / methods*
  • Female
  • Heart Rate, Fetal / physiology
  • Humans
  • Pregnancy
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic