Diagnostic accuracy of ultrasound screening for fetal structural abnormalities during the first and second trimester of pregnancy in low-risk and unselected populations

Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2024 May 9;5(5):CD014715. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD014715.pub2.


Background: Prenatal ultrasound is widely used to screen for structural anomalies before birth. While this is traditionally done in the second trimester, there is an increasing use of first-trimester ultrasound for early detection of lethal and certain severe structural anomalies.

Objectives: To evaluate the diagnostic accuracy of ultrasound in detecting fetal structural anomalies before 14 and 24 weeks' gestation in low-risk and unselected pregnant women and to compare the current two main prenatal screening approaches: a single second-trimester scan (single-stage screening) and a first- and second-trimester scan combined (two-stage screening) in terms of anomaly detection before 24 weeks' gestation.

Search methods: We searched MEDLINE, EMBASE, Science Citation Index Expanded (Web of Science), Social Sciences Citation Index (Web of Science), Arts & Humanities Citation Index and Emerging Sources Citation Index (Web of Science) from 1 January 1997 to 22 July 2022. We limited our search to studies published after 1997 and excluded animal studies, reviews and case reports. No further restrictions were applied. We also screened reference lists and citing articles of each of the included studies.

Selection criteria: Studies were eligible if they included low-risk or unselected pregnant women undergoing a first- and/or second-trimester fetal anomaly scan, conducted at 11 to 14 or 18 to 24 weeks' gestation, respectively. The reference standard was detection of anomalies at birth or postmortem.

Data collection and analysis: Two review authors independently undertook study selection, quality assessment (QUADAS-2), data extraction and evaluation of the certainty of evidence (GRADE approach). We used univariate random-effects logistic regression models for the meta-analysis of sensitivity and specificity.

Main results: Eighty-seven studies covering 7,057,859 fetuses (including 25,202 with structural anomalies) were included. No study was deemed low risk across all QUADAS-2 domains. Main methodological concerns included risk of bias in the reference standard domain and risk of partial verification. Applicability concerns were common in studies evaluating first-trimester scans and two-stage screening in terms of patient selection due to frequent recruitment from single tertiary centres without exclusion of referrals. We reported ultrasound accuracy for fetal structural anomalies overall, by severity, affected organ system and for 46 specific anomalies. Detection rates varied widely across categories, with the highest estimates of sensitivity for thoracic and abdominal wall anomalies and the lowest for gastrointestinal anomalies across all tests. The summary sensitivity of a first-trimester scan was 37.5% for detection of structural anomalies overall (95% confidence interval (CI) 31.1 to 44.3; low-certainty evidence) and 91.3% for lethal anomalies (95% CI 83.9 to 95.5; moderate-certainty evidence), with an overall specificity of 99.9% (95% CI 99.9 to 100; low-certainty evidence). Two-stage screening had a combined sensitivity of 83.8% (95% CI 74.7 to 90.1; low-certainty evidence), while single-stage screening had a sensitivity of 50.5% (95% CI 38.5 to 62.4; very low-certainty evidence). The specificity of two-stage screening was 99.9% (95% CI 99.7 to 100; low-certainty evidence) and for single-stage screening, it was 99.8% (95% CI 99.2 to 100; moderate-certainty evidence). Indirect comparisons suggested superiority of two-stage screening across all analyses regarding sensitivity, with no significant difference in specificity. However, the certainty of the evidence is very low due to the absence of direct comparisons.

Authors' conclusions: A first-trimester scan has the potential to detect lethal and certain severe anomalies with high accuracy before 14 weeks' gestation, despite its limited overall sensitivity. Conversely, two-stage screening shows high accuracy in detecting most fetal structural anomalies before 24 weeks' gestation with high sensitivity and specificity. In a hypothetical cohort of 100,000 fetuses, the first-trimester scan is expected to correctly identify 113 out of 124 fetuses with lethal anomalies (91.3%) and 665 out of 1776 fetuses with any anomaly (37.5%). However, 79 false-positive diagnoses are anticipated among 98,224 fetuses (0.08%). Two-stage screening is expected to correctly identify 1448 out of 1776 cases of structural anomalies overall (83.8%), with 118 false positives (0.1%). In contrast, single-stage screening is expected to correctly identify 896 out of 1776 cases before 24 weeks' gestation (50.5%), with 205 false-positive diagnoses (0.2%). This represents a difference of 592 fewer correct identifications and 88 more false positives compared to two-stage screening. However, it is crucial to acknowledge the uncertainty surrounding the additional benefits of two-stage versus single-stage screening, as there are no studies directly comparing them. Moreover, the evidence supporting the accuracy of first-trimester ultrasound and two-stage screening approaches primarily originates from studies conducted in single tertiary care facilities, which restricts the generalisability of the results of this meta-analysis to the broader population.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Bias
  • Congenital Abnormalities / diagnostic imaging
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Trimester, First*
  • Pregnancy Trimester, Second*
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Ultrasonography, Prenatal* / statistics & numerical data