Pulse oximetry test: ‘ET’-like light could save babies

The pulse oximetry test uses light to detect the level of oxygen in a baby\'s blood. (Courtesy of Children\'s National Medical Center)

WASHINGTON – It’s every new parent’s nightmare: a healthy baby goes home from the hospital and within days turns blue and struggles to breathe.

These infants have congenital heart disease — the most common birth defect in children.

Most often, these problems are detected before birth or during routine newborn exams and treated in time, but some are not. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that as many as 300 babies leave American hospitals each year with serious hidden heart defects.

“Maybe as many as 40 percent of babies with critical congenital heart disease are not detected during the first days after birth when they are undergoing normal testing in the newborn nursery,” says Dr. Gerard Martin, a pediatric cardiologist with the Center for Heart, Lung and Kidney Disease at Children’s National Medical Center.

Now there is a test that can detect these hidden heart problems before a baby goes home. It is simple, non-invasive and highly effective. But it is not required everywhere.

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Dr. Gerard Martin, a pediatric cardiologist with the Center for Heart, Lung and Kidney Disease at Children’s National Medical Center, has been at the forefront of efforts to require pulse oximetry for all newborns. (Courtesy of CNMC)

It’s a pulse oximetry test that uses light to detect the level of oxygen in the baby’s blood. Infants with sound hearts have blood that is loaded with oxygen, but those with congenital defects do not.

For the test, a light-emitting probe is placed on the baby’s skin.

“It is a little pink light, like ‘ET,'” says Martin.

He says if reusable probes are used, the cost comes to about $1 per infant.

He estimates that nationwide, somewhere around 200 babies could be saved or helped each year by pulse oximetry. That translates to five to 10 babies in D.C. alone.

Martin has been at the forefront of efforts to get jurisdictions around the country to require pulse oximetry for all newborns. The federal government backed the idea in 2011, and Maryland was one of the first states to mandate the test, with Virginia following months later. But it still is not the law in D.C.

“It was always kind of embarrassing that Children’s National has been advocating for this around the world and the District wasn’t showing up on the legislative maps,” says Martin.

He says a formal recommendation from the D.C. Department of Health is headed to Mayor Vincent Gray and action could be coming soon. But the city’s seven birthing hospitals are not waiting. They have all pledged to add pulse oximetry to the routine screening they give all newborns.

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