Computer Interpretation of Foetal Heart Rates Does Not Help Distinguishing Babies That Need a Caesarean from Those That Do Not

In an earlier life I was involved in obtaining treatment costs for a pilot trial of computerised foetal heart monitoring versus standard foetal heart monitoring (CTG). The full trial, funded by NIHR, has now been published in the Lancet,[1] featuring Sara Kenyon from our CLAHRC WM theme 1. With over 46,000 participants the trial found no difference in a composite measure of foetal outcome or intervention rates. Perinatal mortality was only 3 per 10,000 women across both arms and the incidence of hypoxic encephalopathy was less than 1 per 1,000. Of course, the possibility of an educational effect from the computer decision support (‘contamination’) may have reduced the observed effect, but this could only be tested by a cluster trial. However, such a design would create its own set of problems, such as loss of precision and bias through interaction between method used and baseline risk across interventions and control sites. Also, the control group was not care as usual, but the visual display IT system shorn of its decision support (artificial intelligence) module.[2] Some support for the idea that control condition affected care in a positive direction, making any marginal effect of decision support hard to detect, comes from the low event rate across both study arms. Meanwhile, the lower than expected baseline event rates mean that any improvement in outcome will be hard to detect in future studies. So here is another topic that, like vitamin D given routinely to elderly people,[3] now sits below the “horizon of science” – the combination of low event rates and low plausible effect sizes mean that we can move on from this subject – at least in a high-income context. If you want to use the computerised method, and its costs are immaterial, then there is no reason not to; economics aside there appear to be no trade-offs here, since both benefits and harms were null.

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director

References:

  1. The INFANT Collaborative Group. Computerised interpretation of fetal heart rate during labour (INFANT): a randomised controlled trial. Lancet. 2017.
  2. Keith R. The INFANT study – a flawed design foreseen. Lancet. 2017.
  3. Lilford RJ. Effects of Vitamin D Supplements. NIHR CLAHRC West Midlands News Blog. 24 March 2017.
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