Ultrasound: What's Wrong With This Picture?

It's cheap and accurate in Europe--but not in the U.S.

It's a picture that lasts a lifetime: the first ultrasound image of a tiny fetus, floating securely in its fluid-filled cocoon. One, two, three, four, five fingers on each hand, five toes on each foot, the diminutive heart pulsing rapidly. For soon-to-be parents, ultrasound can be a calming tonic--or the first sign of serious trouble. To doctors, the procedure--used in some 70% of pregnancies, at a cost of $1 billion--can help date a pregnancy, aid in diagnosing birth defects, and reduce liability. But an important question remains: Does ultrasound have any real benefit as a routine tool to screen for problems in even low-risk pregnancies?

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