This week we will hear two perspectives on the benefits of pulse ox and the effort to make this non-invasive test a standard screening of newborns. Pulse Ox screening has made it possible to detect CHD in many newborns that would have otherwise gone home undiagnosed. This week’s contributions were provided by Dr. Gerard Martin, a pediatric cardiologist, and Ms. Lisa Wandler, a pediatric nurse, from the Children’s National Heart Institute and Dr. Matt Oster, MD, MPH , a pediatric cardiologist at Sibley Heart Center Cardiology at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
Dr. Gerard Martin, a pediatric cardiologist, and Ms. Lisa Wandler, a pediatric nurse, from the Children’s National Heart Institute discuss with us how pulse oximetry screening works , as well as its benefits and limitations.
Screening infants for Critical Congenital Heart Disease (CCHD) using pulse oximetry is recommended in the United States, but this was not always the case! As of this summer, all 50 states and the District of Columbia will be screening for CCHD. In many countries, this important life-saving screen is not yet standard for every newborn.
How CCHD pulse oximetry screening works:
CCHD screening is simple, painless and takes only a few minutes to perform. It typically takes place around 24 hours after birth either in the newborn nursery or in the mother’s room. A sticker with a special light probe is placed on the baby’s right hand and either foot. The measurement that the light probe takes helps the medical team determine whether the baby may have CCHD and require further assessment and testing.
How it has changed standard screening for newborns:
Prior to the implementation of CCHD screening, as many as 50% of infants with CCHD were being discharged from the hospital without anyone knowing of their heart problem. Without CCHD screening using pulse oximetry, routine newborn screening could help identify hearing and other rare but serious conditions in babies just after birth but not heart defects.
Benefits/importance of screening:
An undetected heart problem in a baby can lead to severe health problems for the baby and even death. This newborn screen has helped to decrease the number of babies lost to undiagnosed heart defects and saved many lives. The CDC continues to investigate the impact CCHD screening has had in the U.S., but an early estimate is that the number of deaths due to CCHD has gone down by 33% in states requiring this important newborn screen.
Limitations of screening using pulse oximetry:
Screening improves the detection of CCHD, however, not all types of CCHD are able to be detected using this screening method. It remains important to follow the instructions of a baby’s pediatrician and other doctors as newborn assessment and pre-natal ultrasound remain important other ways CCHD can be identified.
Early symptoms of CCHD can include rapid breathing, difficulty feeding and bluish skin. If your baby has these symptoms, tell the baby’s doctor.
The Critical Congenital Heart Disease Screening Program at Children’s National Heart Institute is composed of Dr. Gerard Martin, a pediatric cardiologist and Ms. Lisa Wandler, a pediatric nurse. The team at Children’s National has worked on implementation, education and CCHD screening advocacy for over ten years and has provided guidance at the local, state and international levels to those interested in CCHD screening using pulse oximetry. The team can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Gerard Martin headshot, cardiologist, children’s national heart institute
Dr. Matt Oster, MD, MPH discusses the progress brought by pulse ox and the distance yet to go.
In my medical career, I’ve been able to see what was once just a promise or an idea be transformed into reality – the ability to screen well-appearing newborns for critical congenital heart disease. While a baby may appear completely well by anyone who sees her, lurking beneath the surface could be subtle hypoxemia – an abnormally low concentration of oxygen in the blood.- secondary to a congenital heart defect. The application of pulse oximetry to detect such hypoxemia has thus allowed clinicians to detect many previously undiagnosed cases sooner, a change
that has led to decreased infant mortality from critical congenital heart disease.
This dramatic change in the care of newborns did not come easily. It took scientists studying the issue to determine whether this could work. It took policy makers the vision to implement this change in their regions. And, most importantly, it took the tireless advocacy of parents and others to call for, and when needed essentially demand, such change.
The application of pulse oximetry to screen for critical congenital heart disease is a true public health success story. And, it has even seen spillover effects in that many children with hypoxemia due to causes other than heart disease are being detected and treated. However, there is still much work to be done. We need to figure out the best way to implement this screening in special settings such as the neonatal intensive care units, home births, or areas of high altitude. We need to improve the quality of the program so that it is implemented consistently and correctly for all newborn. We need to help public health agencies monitor and track the success of this program.
But the biggest change we need to make is figure out a way to increase the sensitivity of the screening. Yes, the program has detected thousands of babies that may have previously gone undetected. But there are still many newborns with critical congenital heart disease that are being missed, even newborns with hypoplastic left heart syndrome. This is typically due to the fact that hypoxemia may not yet be present. We need improved diagnosed methods beyond pulse oximetry to help detect these children. This is not an easy task, but scientists are indeed working on it. And when it’s ready, we’ll need the help of advocates and policymakers to make it a reality.
Dr. Matt Oster, MD, MPH is a pediatric cardiologist at Sibley Heart Center Cardiology at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, and he holds Emory appointments of Associate Professor of Pediatrics in the School of Medicine and Associate Professor of Epidemiology in the School of Public Health. He earned his MD at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and his MPH in epidemiology at Emory University Rollins School of Public Health. After completing residency training in pediatrics at the University of California-San Francisco, he did fellowship training in pediatric cardiology at Emory University. When not seeing patients, he serves as director of the Children’s Cardiac Outcomes Research Program at Sibley Heart Center. His research interests include newborn screening for congenital heart disease, the epidemiology of congenital heart disease, and long-term outcomes for patients with congenital heart disease.