If you recently had a baby (or are getting ready to) you may have noticed another test being performed on your newborn before they leave the hospital. Earlier this year the American Academy of Pediatrics endorsed the routine use of pulse oximetry to enhance detection of critical congenital heart disease.
Critical congenital heart defects (CCHD) are serious structural heart defects that are often associated with decreased oxygen levels in infants in the newborn period. These heart defects account for about 17-31% of all congenital heart disease (or about 4,800 babies born each year in the U.S.) While some of these defects are found on pre-natal ultrasounds, and some may be evident immediately after birth when the pediatrician hears a murmur or the baby has difference in their pulses, others may not present until a baby is several hours - days of age.
Using pulse oximetry to measure a baby's oxygen levels before they are discharged is just another method of screening a child, and if there are abnormalities a baby would undergo further evaluation with an echocardiogram and would see a pediatric cardiologist.
Pulse oximetry is routinely used in all aspects of medicine these days and requires a simple non-invasive device that is placed on a babies finger or toe to measure the level of oxygen in the blood. (looks a little like ET device to light up a finger). It works by comparing the differences in red light, which is absorbed by oxygenated blood, and infrared light, which is absorbed by deoxygenated blood.
In a large study just published in the journal Lancet (looking at over 230,000 newborns), simple pulse oximetry detected 76% of congenital heart defects, with only a rate of 0.14% false positive results. The risk of false positives was even lower than that when pulse ox was performed when the baby was over 24 hours of age. Pretty impressive!
It has been estimated that about 280 infants with unrecognized CCHD are discharged from newborn nurseries each year. Congenital heart disease also accounts for somewhere between 3-7 % of infant deaths. With early intervention and surgery the chance of survival from CCHD is greatly improved.
So, ask your pediatrician or obstetrician if they are doing routine pulse oximetry in your hospital nursery.
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