Maternal-Fetal Medicine Doctor: Your High-Risk Pregnancy Specialist

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What is a maternal-fetal medicine doctor?

A maternal-fetal medicine doctor specializes in the health needs of women and their unborn babies who are at risk of complications during pregnancy. Maternal-fetal medicine doctors provide both medical and surgical care, as well as genetic screening and pre-pregnancy counseling. Maternal-fetal medicine doctors work closely with obstetrician-gynecologists and neonatologists to develop comprehensive care plans.

A maternal-fetal medicine doctor typically:

  • Provides pre-pregnancy counseling including a medical history and genetic profile evaluation, as well as education about pregnancy wellness and ways to reduce risks and complications

  • Treats and monitors chronic diseases and conditions that affect the health of pregnant women and their unborn babies including diabetes, high blood pressure, thyroid disease, and heart disease

  • Orders and interprets laboratory and imaging tests and prescribes medications

  • Diagnoses and treats acute pregnancy complications, such as preterm labor, preeclampsia, and eclampsia

  • Performs fetal diagnostic and screening tests, such as ultrasound, amniocentesis, chorionic villus sampling, and percutaneous umbilical cord blood sampling to detect birth defects and fetal conditions

  • Performs surgical procedures on pregnant mothers and their unborn babies, such as open fetal surgery and fetoscopy to treat birth defects and prevent complications

  • Collaborates with other healthcare providers including obstetrician-gynecologists, neonatologists, genetic counselors, and nutritionists to help women and their families manage their pregnancy care

Maternal-fetal medicine doctors may also be known by the following names: perinatologist, maternal-fetal medicine subspecialist, MFM, maternal-fetal physician, high-risk pregnancy obstetrician, high-risk pregnancy specialist, high-risk pregnancy doctor, and high-risk pregnancy physician.

Who should see a maternal-fetal medicine doctor?

Any woman with a high-risk pregnancy or who is experiencing pregnancy complications should consider seeing a maternal-fetal medicine doctor during her pregnancy. These visits are in addition to the regular pregnancy care visits to her obstetrician-gynecologist. Maternal-fetal medicine doctors collaborate with obstetrician-gynecologists to develop care plans tailored to a woman’s medical history, health status, age, and other risk factors.

Additionally, if you have pre-existing conditions that can complicate pregnancy, such as diabetes or heart disease, you should consider consulting a maternal-fetal medicine doctor before becoming pregnant. He or she will help you create a plan to minimize your risk of pregnancy complications. Finally, any pregnant woman may see a maternal-fetal medicine doctor for fetal diagnostic testing and screening procedures, such as amniocentesis and chorionic villus sampling.

When should you see a maternal-fetal medicine doctor?

You may seek or be referred for care from a maternal-fetal medicine doctor if:

  • You are or want to become pregnant and are at risk of complications because you are 35 or older, or you are very young (younger than 17 years).

  • You are or want to become pregnant and are either underweight or overweight.

  • You are or want to become pregnant and have a chronic condition that can complicate your pregnancy, such as an eating disorder, diabetes or another endocrine disorder, high blood pressure, heart disease, gastrointestinal disease, or kidney disease.

  • You have had problems or complications with previous pregnancies.

  • You have repeatedly miscarried or delivered preterm babies in the past.

  • You have given birth to a live or stillborn baby with birth defects or genetic conditions, such as cleft palate or Down syndrome.

  • You are pregnant with more than one baby.

  • You are experiencing pregnancy complications, such as gestational diabetes, preeclampsia (toxemia of pregnancy), placenta previa (placenta is blocking the cervix), and preterm labor.

  • Your doctor has recommended or you want to have fetal diagnostic testing or genetic screening.

What conditions and diseases does a maternal-fetal medicine doctor treat?

A maternal-fetal medicine doctor treats conditions and diseases including:

  • Fetal abnormalities or conditions including infections, congenital birth defects, genetic conditions, and fetal growth restriction

  • Infectious diseases including bacterial vaginosis, fifth disease, hepatitis, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV/AIDS), influenza, listeriosis, and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)

  • Maternal pre-existing health conditions including asthma, eating disorders, mental disorders, diabetes, epilepsy, high blood pressure, heart disease, gastrointestinal disease, kidney disease, migraine headaches, thyroid disease, and uterine fibroids

  • Maternal pregnancy complications including anemia, gestational diabetes, preeclampsia (toxemia of pregnancy), hyperemesis gravidarum (severe nausea and vomiting), placenta previa (placenta is blocking the cervix), placental abruption (placenta separates from the uterine wall), and preterm labor (before 37 weeks of gestation)

  • Pregnancy involving multiple babies including twins, triplets, quadruplets and more

  • Previous pregnancy problems including pregnancy complications, repeated miscarriage, preterm delivery, stillborn delivery, and delivery of a live or stillborn baby with birth defects or genetic condition

What tests does a maternal-fetal medicine doctor perform or order?

A maternal-fetal medicine doctor can order or perform a wide variety of diagnostic and screening tests for both pregnant mothers and their unborn babies. These tests include:

  • Fetal diagnostic tests and genetic screening including ultrasound, four-dimensional (4D) imaging, fetal heart studies, amniocentesis, chorionic villus sampling, and percutaneous umbilical cord blood sampling to detect birth defects and fetal conditions

  • Fetal wellness tests including ultrasound, Doppler ultrasound, and fetal measurements

  • General health tests including complete blood count (CBC), mental health screening, urinalysis, blood glucose (sugar) test, liver function tests, cholesterol panel, thyroid hormone tests, and blood pressure screening

  • Pregnancy health tests including Rh factor test, gestational diabetes testing, and testing levels of hormones, such as alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) and human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG)

What procedures and treatments does a maternal-fetal medicine doctor perform or order?

Maternal-fetal medicine doctors order or perform various procedures and treatments to manage health conditions in a pregnant woman or her unborn baby. Maternal-fetal medicine doctors are trained in both medical and surgical treatments. However, your maternal-fetal medicine doctor may provide referrals to general surgeons and other specialists when necessary. Common procedures and treatments include:

  • Chronic disease management for pregnant mothers including complete medical or surgical care for disease, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, thyroid disease, and heart disease

  • Fetal surgery including minimally invasive fetoscopic surgery, fetal laser procedures, open fetal surgery, and ex utero intrapartum procedures (EXIT, which is surgery during birth to help a baby live outside the womb)

  • Fetal therapy including intrauterine transfusion (blood transfusion to a fetus), management of fetal heart arrhythmias, and fetal shunt therapy for urinary blockages or lung problems

  • Genetic counseling before and during pregnancy to help parents evaluate information about fetal and maternal health risks

  • Medication therapy including antibiotics, insulin, and intravenous (IV) or oral medicines to control blood pressure or repeated vomiting, to stop premature contractions, or to help a baby’s lungs mature if there is a high risk of preterm birth

What education and certification does a maternal-fetal medicine doctor have?

A doctor may practice maternal-fetal medicine without becoming board certified in the specialty. However, education, training, experience and certification are key elements in establishing a doctor’s level of competence. Board certification verifies that a doctor has completed a rigorous training program and passed an exam demonstrating his or her expertise in maternal-fetal medicine.

A board-certified maternal-fetal medicine doctor has earned certification in maternal-fetal medicine by the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology or the American Osteopathic Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

A board-certified maternal-fetal medicine doctor has:

  • Graduated from medical school or a college of osteopathic medicine, earning an MD or DO degree

  • Completed specialized residency training and passed a certification exam in obstetrics and gynecology

  • Additional subspecialty training and certification in maternal-fetal medicine

To maintain board certification in maternal-fetal medicine, a doctor must participate in an ongoing certification program.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2017 Nov 2
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Certifications. American Osteopathic Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology. http://aobog.org/pages/certifications.  
  2. What is a Maternal-Fetal Medicine Specialist? Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine. https://www.smfm.org/members/what-is-a-mfm.  
  3. Pregnancy Complications. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health. https://www.womenshealth.gov/pregnancy/youre-pregnant-now-what/pregnancy-complications.