New test to save newborn's hearts

About 30 percent of infant deaths in the U.S. are because of congenital heart defects.

There is a test for newborns which can help detect deadly heart problems, but it is not being used in all hospitals.

However, the test may be an easy way to help save your baby’s life.

Tania Rocchio knows exactly how important the tests can be.

Dr. Robert Koppel performed a pulse-oximetry test on her newborn, John Carlo, to screen for deadly heart problems.

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

"Although we can't be absolutely certain that the baby doesn't have an underlying potentially lethal problem, we know that that's far less likely than it was a generation ago," said Koppel, the medical director at Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York.

Now Rocchio, who said that there is a history of heart problems in her family, has more peace of mind. The test is mandatory in multiple states, but there is some fear that it may lead to false positive results. However, a study in Britain showed a false positive rate of one in three thousand cases.

Dr. Koppel believes early detection outweighs any negatives.

"Treatment is so effective at saving lives,” he said.

Studies show that 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 the use of the probe. It is about $1 per reusable probe, or $7 to $8 for a single-use probe.


REPORT: MB # 3680

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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