Pediatric and cardiac experts recently developed a strategy for routine heart screenings on all newborns to help improve the detection of congenital heart disease and hopefully reduce infant mortality rates. Through a non-invasive procedure known as pulse oximetry, nursing staff and hospital physicians will be able to better identify potentially fatal but treatable heart conditions; a health condition that claims more lives before the age of one than any other birth defect.
“One percent of all newborns have congenital heart disease and about one quarter have critical heart defects which require early intervention,” study lead author Dr. Alex R. Kemper and associate professor of pediatrics at Duke University in Durham, N.C. stated. “If they’re not picked up in a timely way then the baby can even die.” Early intervention seems to be the key and early intervention is what the panel hopes to achieve with the new testing strategy.
Testing will be done before the infant leaves the hospital but not on the first day of life. It is hoped that, by delaying the testing until the second day, hospitals can reduce the number of false positives – a situation that would surely leave most parents worried and stressed.
Proper algorithms for avoiding false positives will also be important for hospital budgets, which may affect whether or not a hospital is receptive to the new testing, especially since acceptance of the testing strategy will be left up to individual facilities.
“Clearly there are still issues that need to be clarified before most hospitals would start doing this. The first is that if the screening picks up an indication of a heart defect then the next step is the baby will need to get an echocardiogram, which is a scan of the heart. And a lot of hospitals just don’t have that equipment. So some babies will need to be transferred to other hospitals for that.”
While budget issues may deter hospitals when deciding whether or not to adopt the strategy, the truth is that this may be the single, most effective way to reduce infant deaths related to congenital heart defects. Children with congenital heart defects look no different than any other infant and many cases go unnoticed.
“It’s hard to identify them. And that is also true even when women get mid-pregnancy ultrasounds. Some cases are picked up but it can be very easy to miss a baby with a life-threatening congenital heart situation,” Kemper stated. It’s not until the infant starts to display symptoms that anyone knows something is wrong. By then, the condition is often fatal and untreatable.
I would hope that all hospitals consider the alternative before shooting down the new strategy. While there may be a few bugs to work out, I would rather be scared out of my mind and have nothing be wrong with my child than to miss it during a time it is treatable, only to find out that it’s too late.
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