New Test to Save Newborn Hearts

New Test to Save Newborn Hearts

Thirty percent of infant deaths in the U.S. are because of congenital heart defects.
Thirty percent of infant deaths in the U.S. are because of congenital heart defects. There's a test for newborns, which can help detect deadly heart problems, but it's not being done in all hospitals.

Tania Rocchio says she holds her newborn John Carlo tight after she found out he passed his test. Dr. Robert Koppel performed a pulse-oximetry test, which screens for deadly heart problems in newborns.

A light source and sensor measures the blood oxygen levels. A healthy saturation is 96 percent or greater. Dr. Koppel says John Carlo should have a healthy heart.

"We can't be absolutely certain that the baby doesn't have an underlying potentially lethal problem, but now we know it is far less likely than we did a generation ago," Robert Koppel, MD, Medical Director, Regional Perinatal Center, Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York, and Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Hofstra North Shore - LIJ School of Medicine, told Ivanhoe.

Now, John Carlo's mom, who says she has heart problems in her family, has more peace of mind. It's only mandatory in some states.

There is some fear it can also lead to false positive results that are costly and stressful for the family, but a study out of Britain showed a false positive rate of one in 3,000 cases.

Dr. Koppel believes early detection outweighs any negatives.

"Treatment is so effective at saving lives," Dr. Koppel said.

Studies show one in six babies who die from critical congenital heart disease are underdiagnosed and unrecognized cases. An estimated 1,200 babies a year could be diagnosed sooner and infant deaths could be prevented if the pulse oximetry was routinely used.

For hospitals that do have the pulse oximetry machine, the only additional cost is for use of the probe, which is about one dollar per reusable probe or seven to eight dollars for a single-use probe.

BACKGROUND: The most common type of birth defect is congenital heart defect. This complication begins at birth and may continue through childhood. This affects the heart valves, arteries and veins surrounding the heart and disturbs the blood flow through the heart. Tests are done when babies are born to check for this defect, but it is not required in all states. This fatal disease does not cause many symptoms and it is hard to catch at a young age. (Source:

SIGNS: Sometimes doctors can detect heart disease while the mother is pregnant. In other cases, newborns are diagnosed with a heart disease at birth. Pain is not usually a symptom, but poor blood circulation, fatigue, rapid breathing, and a bluish tint to the fingernails, lips, and skin are common signs that a newborn has congenital heart disease. A heart murmur may also be detected if newborns are diagnosed with a heart disease, which is an abnormal blood flow through the heart. (Source:

TREATMENT: Depending on the severity of the disease, a child may or may not need to be treated. If treatment is needed, then a catheter or surgery can repair the irregularity. If the disease cannot be treated with the use of a catheter, then doctors perform open-heart surgery to fix the defect.

NEW TECHNOLOGY: A pulse oximetry screening is now being performed on newborns across the U.S. with the exception of a few states. Newborns are tested for heart defects in hospitals just moments after birth to detect any potential or current heart complications. Before performing the screening, doctors place a probe on the infant’s foot then they begin the screening. The blood oxygen level is measured by light source and sensors which determine how healthy the heart is. The test screens for the seven most vital heart diseases to save the lives of newborns and prevent further complications. This procedure provides comfort and relief to parents as they feel that their child is in good health. (Source:


Robert Koppel, MD
Medical Director
Regional Perinatal Center
Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York
Associate Professor of Pediatrics
Hofstra North Shore - LIJ School of Medicine

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