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Electronic fetal monitoring: Is it information overload?


There is no question that we are living in the information age where “big data” isn’t just reserved for scientists but is accessible to everyone. Wearable devices have revolutionized when and how often we exercise. Smartphones have changed the way in which we consume news, watch television, take photographs, and record home movies. Online video chatting has allowed people who live miles – or even countries – away to connect on a whole new level. Today’s 7-year-olds have never lived in a world without iPhones and don’t know what life is like without iPads. Technology has improved our daily lives in countless ways. However, is “too much of a good thing” ever just too much?

Last year, we looked back over the preceding 5 decades of ob.gyn. practice. This retrospective analysis demonstrated that today’s practitioners have infinitely more tools at their disposal than many of their mentors did to ensure the best pregnancy outcomes. From prenatal diagnostic approaches, such as ultrasonography and genetic screening, to in utero surgical interventions, our discipline has advanced in leaps and bounds, all over the course of one person’s lifetime.

Dr. E. Albert Reece

Dr. E. Albert Reece

As technology continues to change and, in many ways, enhance the patient experience, the question we should continually ask is, “just because we can do something, should we do it?” Just because we can perform a chorionic villus sampling, should we perform one? Perhaps not. Just because we can schedule a planned cesarean section, should we? Probably not. The same line of questioning applies to the tools we employ to assist us in labor and delivery, including one of the most ubiquitous ones – the electronic fetal monitor.

The electronic fetal heart rate monitor was developed in the late 1950s to continuously record the fetal heart rate during delivery and to help ob.gyns. identify patterns that might indicate fetal distress. Although the monitors have improved over time, the interpretation of the data obtained, and what measures to employ based on these data, can be unclear. Just because the electronic fetal monitor can detect an abnormal heart rate pattern, should we intervene, and what approaches should we employ?

To help answer these questions, I have invited Dr. Alison G. Cahill, associate professor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Washington University, St. Louis, and chief of the division of maternal-fetal medicine, to explore the use, utility, and interpretation of data obtained by electronic fetal monitors.

Dr. Reece, who specializes in maternal-fetal medicine, is vice president for medical affairs at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, as well as the John Z. and Akiko K. Bowers Distinguished Professor and dean of the school of medicine. Dr. Reece said he had no relevant financial disclosures. He is the medical editor of this column. Contact him at

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