Pulse oximetry to screen newborns for heart defects

Pulse oximetry testing to detect congenital heart defects in newborns will be piloted in England following advice from experts.

Pulse oximetry: newborns will be screened for heart defects (photo: Science Photo Library)
Pulse oximetry: newborns will be screened for heart defects (photo: Science Photo Library)

The UK National Screening Committee (UKNSC) said the test would detect congenital heart defects and other diseases, leading to earlier diagnosis and treatment for thousands of newborns every year.

Every year, about 3,500 babies are born with congenital heart defects. Although newborns are already screened for heart problems in the NHS Fetal Anomaly Screening Programme and the NHS Newborn and Infant Physical Examination, the new test should identify more of these babies with congenital heart defects at an early stage.

The test measures blood oxygen levels using a clip on the baby’s fingers and toes. Congenital heart defects can lead to hypoxaemia in newborns.

The recommendation was announced at the UKNSC’s committee meeting earlier this month.

Dr Anne Mackie, director of programmes for the UKNSC, said: ‘Pulse oximetry has the potential to make sure babies get the care they need before they become seriously ill. The test will also identify many, many babies with low oxygen.’

Anne Keatley-Clarke, chief executive of the Children’s Heart Federation, said: ‘This simple test can prevent many babies born with life-threatening conditions from leaving hospital without being diagnosed. Detection at birth means babies can receive treatment early helping to save lives, reduce physical harm and prevent distress to families.’

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