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Experts concerned about high rate of ultrasound exams during pregnancy

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The average woman who delivered a baby last year had five ultrasound exams during pregnancy. That's according to an analysis done for the Wall Street Journal. It's nearly double the average of a decade ago, and experts are concerned that many of the exams are being done unnecessarily.

Elizabeth Oswald is expecting her first child at age 38. She's had bleeding on and off during pregnancy.

"You don't know if your baby's dead or alive inside you, and you can come in and see her move, it means everything," said Oswald.

She has had a dozen ultrasound exams, all medically-indicated, during her high-risk pregnancy. Experts say there's no question ultrasound is a valuable tool.

"But like any other test, unless it is indicated, why should it be done?" said Dr. Dev Maulik, the chair of obstetrics and gynecology at Truman Medical Center.

Dr. Maulik is concerned that too many ultrasounds are being done unnecessarily in low-risk pregnancies. Guidelines say only two are needed.

Dr. Maulik is particularly concerned about keepsake ultrasounds, those pre-natal portraits that many expectant parents pay out-of-pocket to get.

"I find that really unacceptable," he said of the keepsake exams.

It's a booming business. Last year, the FDA again discouraged the use of them, citing possible safety issues. Dr. Maulik says there is no evidence that any fetus has ever been harmed by ultrasound.

"But the potential exists because ultrasound is an energy entering the body. It can vibrate molecules. It can generate heat," he said.

Oswald says there is a strong desire to see your baby in the womb.

"But people have had a lot of babies for a long time without having little pictures of their face when they're in there," she added.

Dr. Maulik says profit and fear of malpractice lawsuits may be factors in the increase in ultrasounds. He says the exam should only be done when necessary by people trained to do it who follow the guidelines.