Testing Newborns for Heart Defects: December 2, 2013

In their first 24 hours of life newborns in Florida go through a series of 35 screenings to look for medical disorders. In Lee County, they will undergo one additional, one that could save their life.

“The name of the test is the pulse oximetry screening for asymptomatic newborns,” says Dr. Vanessa Gomez, pediatric hospitalist with Lee Memorial Health System.

Since June about a thousand infants have taken the test, looking for heart defects.

“We can miss a critical congenital heart defect, a structural abnormality of the heart. Our simple physical examination and the history from mom is not enough to detect that. Most babies who can potentially have this, don’t have any symptoms,” says Dr. Gomez.

The test helps detect 80% of heart defects, including holes in the heart, murmurs and malformed or missing valves. It is painless, non-invasive and relatively low tech.

By taking a 30 second reading on both a finger and toe, experts measure oxygen levels in the baby’s blood. A healthy saturation is 95 or greater.

“We had an infant that was getting ready to go home, the nursing staff went in and performed the screening, the values were low. The infant then immediately had an echocardiogram, and a critical congenital heart defect was detected. And then that infant was prepared to have that fixed surgically. The mom and baby are home and they’re happy and healthy,” says Carol Lawrence, critical congenital heart defect screening program director with Lee Memorial Health System.

Pulse oximetry is recommended, but not mandatory in the state of Florida. The test is cheap- about $1 per baby. Making it a low-cost tool with a great benefit, by identifying newborns before they go home where they can rapidly deteriorate.

“There are some babies who die at home without being found to have a critical congenital heart defect. So our goal is to find this prior to them going home,” says Dr. Gomez. 

“Even though it’s not mandated by the state of Florida, we are committed to screen infants before they leave the hospital because we know that it can improve the lives of the children in our community,” says Lawrence.

Reason enough to look for potentially lethal, but often treatable broken hearts.